Friday, June 08, 2018

After Years of Green Promises, Automakers Renege on Emissions Standards

For decades, government pressure has been needed to force U.S. automakers to agree to reduce pollution and CO2 emissions from their fleets.  Now, with the Trump administration, the job of pushing Detroit to cut emissions falls to California and other environmentally minded states.

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, talks with President Trump at a press event in Ypsilanti Township, Michigan in March 2017. (Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst) Click to Enlarge.
When General Motors CEO Mary Barra recently affirmed a commitment to “a world with zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion,” she echoed similar statements from the company’s executives over the years.  Back in 1972, GM Vice President Elliott Estes had declared that “the automobile will be essentially removed from the air pollution problem in the United States” within another decade or so.  That didn’t happen, yet two decades later President Bill Clinton played along with this fantasy.  Bowing to the power of GM and its then-Big Three partners, Ford and Chrysler, Clinton broke a campaign pledge to raise Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards and instead underwrote industry research on super-clean future cars.  Meanwhile, fuel economy fell while CO2 emissions continued to rise.

U.S. automakers have always been reluctant partners in the nation’s efforts to reduce air pollution and improve fuel efficiency.  Today, Detroit is seeking to undo the carbon-cutting fuel efficiency targets agreed to during the Obama administration, again offering the false promise of green breakthroughs tomorrow.  This time, however, it’s happening with the help of an administration and a ruling party openly hostile to the environment.

Like some other industries, automakers have been cultivating such a political moment for years.  They seized it in 2016 when Donald Trump was elected, writing his transition team two days after the election to request a new review of the vehicle fuel efficiency standards that had been painstakingly developed just a few years earlier.  After Trump took office, his new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, agreed to the automakers’ request, officially negating the Obama administration’s 11th-hour determination that the existing strong standards should stand.

Regulations are necessary to mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, just as they were for reducing smog.  Lack of technology is not now, and never has been, the limiting factor for making measurable progress to protect the environment.  The obstacle is lack of political will.  And with the political will to cut greenhouse gas emissions utterly lacking in the nation’s GOP-ruled capital, hope now rests on California and other allied states committed to steady progress on emissions reduction.

Although closely coupled, automotive fuel economy and CO2 emissions are regulated separately under the law.  It took several years of discussion to develop the coordinated California and federal greenhouse gas emission rules that the Obama Administration finalized in 2012.  These standards call for new fleet greenhouse gas reductions and a parallel improvement in fuel economy standards averaging more than 4 percent per year by 2025.  Many forms of regulatory flexibility are built into the standards, so that the actual efficiency levels will be lower than those nominal targets even if the rules are not weakened.  Nevertheless, these standards assure steady reductions in CO2 emissions — an important step in fighting climate change considering that transportation accounts for 28 percent of the country’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions of 6.5 billion tons of CO2 equivalent.

Although automakers publicly say they want steady progress, it’s no accident that the industry’s opening move under Trump — described in a letter of concern to administration officials by U.S. Democratic Senator Tom Carper of Delaware — is  a proposal to freeze the standards after 2020.  U.S. domestic automakers have long worked with some other business interests to fight climate policy, often acting through front groups such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI).  CEI’s Myron Ebell led Trump’s EPA transition team and takes a hard line against greenhouse gas standards.  Under the worst-case rollbacks, U.S. automotive CO2 emissions could be more than 100 million metric tons higher in 2035, a level 13 percent greater than the 771 million metric tons currently projected.

The role of California is crucial in avoiding such an outcome.  Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board (CARB), has made it clear that her state is committed to slashing emissions and electrifying the state’s vehicle fleet.  Nichols says California is willing to negotiate aspects of the greenhouse gas standards, but not on lowering the 2025 targets and only if the proposal includes a clear path to even greater CO2 reductions by 2030.

Joined by 16 other states, California sued the Trump Administration last month over its decision that the standards need to be weakened.  The state’s leadership is a key reason why the nation has made historical progress on clean air, with California leading the fight decades ago to slash vehicular pollution.  And given that California accounts for 13 percent of the U.S.’s 113 million registered automobiles, Detroit must make vehicles that meet the state’s stricter pollution standards.  Eliminating California’s authority to set greenhouse gas emission standards is on the auto industry’s hit list and is part of the assault on the standards scripted for its allies in the Trump administration.  A proposal to remove California’s authority was in the administration’s draft rule that was flagged by Senator Carper.

The purpose of regulation is to balance public health and safety against market forces that neglect such broader environmental and social costs.  When gasoline prices moderate or drivers adapt to a higher price, consumers favor larger and faster cars and trucks with all manner of other features.  There’s nothing wrong with such niceties, but they are no excuse for relaxing regulations.

Achieving such a balance with motor vehicles is an important — indeed, iconic — aspect of the broader need for society to embrace an ethic of sustainable consumption.  That doesn’t mean “crawling back into a cave” or “making everyone drive small cars,” as some car companies and their anti-civil society surrogates suggest.  But it does mean using standards to guide automakers’ next rounds of redesign to prioritize fuel economy rather than more of everything else. 

Read more at After Years of Green Promises, Automakers Renege on Emissions Standards

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