Alternative Fuel vs Public Transportation on Addressing Climate Change

Opinions on Debatable Issues #34

The issues of traffic congestion and climate change have been at the center of discussion in American society and politics in recent decades. Some support improving public transportation while others turn to alternative fuels. In my opinion, states/local governments should invest more dollars in alternative fuel sources rather than increase subsidies for public transportation.

First and foremost, using alternative fuels instead of conventional fuels helps prevent fuel shortages and lower vehicle emissions. Biodiesel is a domestically produced, renewable fuel that can be manufactured from vegetable oils, animal fats, or recycled restaurant grease for use in diesel vehicles or any equipment that operates on diesel fuel. Using biodiesel reduces life cycle emissions because the carbon dioxide released from biodiesel combustion is offset by the carbon dioxide absorbed from growing soybeans or other feedstocks used to produce the fuel. A Life cycle analysis completed by Argonne National Laboratory found that biodiesel use reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 74% compared with petroleum diesel, which is very effective in addressing climate change.

Furthermore, according to Tennessee State University, the cost to produce biodiesel is $5.53-$6.38 per gallon. Though this is higher than the current price of regular diesel, the value of the seed meal produced in the process ($3.03 per gallon) makes the cost to generate biodiesel lower (about $2.50-$3.35 per gallon). Furthermore, the higher cost cancels out with the later resources devoted to reverse climate change, so it is about a similar price as petroleum but much more environmentally friendly.

For another fuel choice, we can also replace fossil fuel with ethanol, which is “an alcohol-based alternative fuel made by fermenting and distilling crops such as corn, barley or wheat”. According to, the material is renewable, so the harm to the environment is minimized. The more effective alternative fuel is cellulosic ethanol, which can be put into wide use when technology advances. According to Zarubin from Stanford, cellulosic materials comprise “60 to 90 percent of earth’s biomass measured by weight” and “are not used for food and feed.” The two qualities of being very abundant and less disturbing to food price makes cellulosic ethanol a very desirable source of alternative fuel. Since “grasses and trees typically require minimal labor and generally have lower fertilizer and pesticide needs and resources,” it is not a hand-use concern. The only problem is the current cost of producing it is a bit high, so we need to invest more money on advancing production technology.

Study shows that ​Communities that invest in public transit reduce the nation’s carbon emissions by 63 million metric tons annually. This is less impressive than if we use more alternative fuels. There are 284.5 million registered cars in 2019 in the US. According to the US Department of energy, a car saves 7661 pounds of CO2 emission annually when becoming completely electrical. If 1/10 of cars in the US become electric, we will be able to save about 108 million metric tons of CO2, which is much more effective than improving transportation.

While I concede that the working class would be attracted by the lower cost of public transportation and the better infrastructure, a decent number of Americans still will prefer private transportation. There is no way that public transportation is more attractive than private transportation to people that are in the middle or upper socioeconomic class because time and privacy become more important than the small amount of money saved. Today, about “11% say they take public transportation on a daily or weekly basis”, according to Pew Research Center. Even when people could be attracted to take public transportation, there is no way that half of the American population would give up private transportation because the capacity will be overstretched and people will no longer favor public transportation as it is crowded. That means subsidizing public transportation has a limited effect on alleviating congestion and reducing carbon emissions. Most people will still be using private transportation to go places for its privacy, convenience, and flexibility. So without making fuel renewable by investing in renewable fuels, greenhouse gas emission is still a potent issue that has not been addressed.

Some argue that investing in alternative fuels takes a long time and has no immediate results. This is true; however, this is also exactly why we need to prioritize it. If investments are not being devoted promptly, climate change will escalate to the point that limiting greenhouse emissions and reversing the effects of CO2 becomes even more difficult. This is not to say that public transportation should not be improved. Making buses and trains more accessible to working or lower socioeconomic class is very valuable, but not as effective and sustainable on the issue of addressing climate change.

In short, subsidies are only interim solutions to the long-term problem that can only be solved by investing in alternative fuels, so the latter should be prioritized.


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