As executive director of the UC Davis Policy Institute for Energy, Environment, and the Economy, Austin Brown builds strong connections between the research, policy and business communities at the local, state, and national levels. His focus is on clean energy and sustainable transportation, and he is currently leading a first-of-kind study with the Institute of Transportation Studies examining pathways to a carbon-neutral transportation system by 2045.
We Zoomed in with him for his take on the work of making meaningful environmental policy during and even after the pandemic.
Shelter-in-place directives have reduced our emissions, particularly with transportation. How much closer does this bring us toward meeting state and national climate targets?
I don’t think they bring us closer at all. Reduction in activity isn’t a sustainable way to reduce emissions. Also, while car travel was reduced, truck travel wasn’t much—we still need goods – and that is a bigger share of local pollution. What we need instead is structural change. That can be done during the recovery, but it will take policy and a commitment to better systems.
Many people expect emissions will spike as soon as people resume normal activities. Are there lessons from this experience you think policymakers can learn from in making some of these climate gains more sustainable?
We are already seeing in regions recovering first, like China, that car travel is rebounding quickly and transit is not. This should serve as a significant warning.
What other sorts of environmental policies do you expect people will need to rethink in the current and post-pandemic world?
It should make us re-appreciate the value of clean air. People who live in polluted areas had come to accept poor air quality and the huge health burden that comes with it.
We’ll probably also have to do without big incentives for at least the short term. The California budget is in crisis, too, and spending will be hard to come by.
What most concerns you about policy actions right now?
That we’ll just go back to business as usual. Or worse, that we will use the recovery as an excuse to delay important actions. It’s easy to think that we have to choose between recovery or better environmental policy. But in reality, we should recover in a way that also meets our environmental goals.
I’m also concerned about the future of shared transportation and transit, especially. At least for the short term, people will prefer not to be in close proximity—but we know sharing is key to a better, more equitable transportation future.
What most excites you?
I hope that people will take away from this how great it is to have streets that aren’t dominated by cars and air that is cleaner. What excites me is that it’s very possible to keep those benefits while we recover if we use policy to promote technologies like electric vehicles and systems like shared mobility.
I think there is also a big opportunity for bicycling, walking, and micromobility. Many cities have closed down some streets to promote exercise. What if we reclaimed some of the transportation system to be for these healthier modes? We know that when you create a safe environment, people love to walk, bike, or scoot—especially when shared micromobility is available.
[Editors note: Micromobility includes small, lightweight mobility devices that travel at relatively high speeds. Think BIRD Scooters or JUMP bikes.]
What else in a story about how COVID-19 may reshape the conversation around climate change policies do you want to make sure is said?
Overall, I think the key is to realize that we can keep the good stuff—like better air and less emissions—without the bad –like COVID-19 and shelter in place. We just need to be thoughtful about policy that accelerates the transition to electrification.
Pablo Loayza is an environmental policy analysis and planning major working as a fellow in the Office of Strategic Communications.