EPA and DOT Propose Critical Standards to Combat Climate Change and Harmful Pollution

New regulations from the Biden administration can help us meet our climate commitments.

Cars drive on Pennybacker Bridge over the Colorado River during rush hour in Austin, Texas.


Mitchell Kmetz

Fighting the climate crisis can’t wait. And thanks to the Biden administration, we now have a pivotal opportunity to finalize rules that tackle the nation’s two largest sources of climate pollution: transportation and power plants. 

We know this is critical. We are rapidly approaching a tipping point to keep global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. To do so, we must cut net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2050. Our analysis makes clear why it is critical that we make significant headway in the coming decade and details the solutions we need. Fortunately, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) agree and recently put forth proposals that provide an opportunity to propel us forward on these goals.

Transportation is the country’s largest source of GHGs, generating at least 28 percent of total emissions. And more than 94 percent of that comes from petroleum-based sources, such as the gasoline that fuels cars, the diesel that fuels trucks and trains, and the kerosene blend that fuels planes. Not only do these fuels emit tons of GHGs that exacerbate the climate crisis but their processing, transport, and combustion also release health-harming air pollutants that can cause asthma, cardiovascular diseases, and even cancer. Transitioning to zero-emission vehicles, like electric cars and trucks, is a crucial and effective way to shrink this largest chunk of emissions.

To that end, the EPA recently proposed new standards to slash pollution from passenger cars and heavy trucks. Strong vehicle pollution standards, combined with the historic clean vehicles investments from Congress, will help accelerate this transition that’s already underway to a clean transportation future. While the EPA’s proposal for passenger cars and light trucks offers a strong start and could result in substantial reductions in harmful smog-forming pollutants, the agency’s proposal for decreasing greenhouse gas pollution from heavy trucks undercuts state action and industry plans to transition to zero-emission vehicles and requires significant strengthening. In line with the EPA, the DOT will soon build upon past actions to make passenger cars and heavy trucks more efficient and less polluting by releasing the next iteration of heavy-truck fuel efficiency standards and overall fuel economy standards (Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, or CAFE) to reduce U.S. dependence on oil and the price swings of the global oil market.

As we continue to zero out transportation sector pollution through technologies like electric vehicles, we need to also transition to clean energy to power those electric vehicles, as well as our buildings, heating, cooling, lighting, appliances, electronics, and more. Electricity generation is our second-largest source of GHG emissions, about 25 percent. And fossil fuel–fired power plants emit other harmful air pollutants—such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and fine particulate matter—contributing to nationwide net climate and health costs totaling more than $800 billion per year due to air pollution exposure and climate change.

Yet until now, power plants have been allowed to operate without any meaningful climate safeguards in place, coughing up an unlimited amount of carbon pollution. Last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in West Virginia v. EPA limited how the EPA can structure regulations but reaffirmed the agency’s authority to regulate individual power plants. Now the EPA has finally proposed new standards that set long-overdue restrictions on carbon pollution from coal- and gas-fired power plants, which the EPA projects would offer up to $85 billion in climate and public health benefits over the next 20 years. 

The clean energy transition is nearing a critical inflection point. By finalizing strong, durable pollution standards for transportation and power generation (and deploying other strategies like improving the electrical grid and ramping up energy efficiency), we could get within striking distance of our climate goals. Along with historic climate investments from the Inflation Reduction Act, these proposed vehicle and power plant standards are an incredible opportunity for a powerful triple play against the climate crisis—one that should not be squandered.

Related Blogs