We Need Cleaner Cars to Avoid Dangerous Climate Change

The Trump administration seems not to care that we are headed toward climate catastrophe with carbon dioxide pollution driving global average temperatures up some 6 degrees Fahrenheit (°F) and rendering places that hundreds of millions of people call home virtually unlivable.

The Trump administration seems not to care that we are headed toward climate catastrophe with carbon dioxide pollution driving global average temperatures up some 6 degrees Fahrenheit (°F) and rendering places that hundreds of millions of people call home virtually unlivable. This monumental disregard for human health and well-being underpins the administration’s senseless rollback of clean car and fuel economy standards, being published today in the Federal Register.

We can’t accept this fatalistic view.

Strong clean car and fuel economy standards are an essential and effective strategy for reducing carbon pollution—they have already avoided emissions of over 467 million metric tons of CO2 since 2012 according to EPA’s own calculations. A responsible government would be strengthening these standards, not weakening them. It would also be speeding up the transition to truly clean electric cars charged with renewable, carbon-free power like wind and solar.

We can reignite and reorient our economy with clean transportation.

Stronger Standards Are Feasible

NRDC will soon go to court to reverse the Trump rollback and reinstate the clean car and fuel economy standards, finalized in 2012, which would have cut heat-trapping pollution from new vehicles nearly in half by model year 2025. The Trump rollback will cause nearly a billion tons more CO2 pollution over the life of the cars and trucks built over the next six years. We believe the rollback fails to meet legal requirements for setting maximum feasible standards and protecting public health and welfare.

If anything, the clean car rules should be strengthened, not weakened. Despite evidence in 2017—even with low projected fuel prices—that technology development supported a stronger standard, EPA opted against starting a new rulemaking to maintain industry certainty through regulatory stability. The Trump administration’s rollback disregarded that notion, prompting pleas from the auto industry to change course and avoid a situation that would lead to litigation and instability.

We Can Beat the Heat

With the rollback, the Trump Department of Transportation and EPA seem to throw up their hands in a ‘why bother?’ moment. Their analysis projects that CO2 concentrations will climb to 789 ppm in 2100 compared to 407 ppm in 2018, even under the more stringent 2012 standards. They also project that global mean surface temperature will increase by 6.3°F over the same period. Ugh, what a world to leave for our children and grandchildren.

Of course, clean car standards are just one step to a safer climate future. No single rule—especially one covering only the next five years of new automobiles—is enough by itself to stave off intolerable climate change. We need measures in all sectors of the economy to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Clean car standards are a necessary piece of the economy-wide puzzle given that the transportation sector is the biggest source of U.S. climate-changing pollution and automobiles are responsible for about 60 percent of it.

Accelerating to a Clean, Electric Future

Complementing these standards, Congress should include action to speed up the transition to cleaner vehicles in the measures it takes to help our economy recover from the COVID pandemic. Up to now, Congress has been understandably focused on immediate health care needs and protecting workers and communities from the economic downturn.   

But Congress will soon turn to measures to reignite the economy. These should include bold actions to rapidly electrify our nation’s cars, freight trucks and buses, while supporting public transportation and making streets safe for walking and biking. Collectively, these actions will cut pollution that causes health-threatening smog and soot and put us on the path to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Specific to cleaner vehicles, the stimulus should include three priorities:

  • Incentives, through rebates, tax breaks and grants, for consumers and municipalities to buy the cleanest cars, trucks and transit and school buses;
  • Investments in electric vehicle charging infrastructure along highways, in underserved communities, at ports and at warehouses; and
  • Investments in American manufacturing of electric vehicles and their components (particularly batteries).

These priorities work hand-in-hand with strong clean vehicle and fuel economy standards, which ensure that traditional auto and truck manufacturers innovate to deliver new, clean vehicle technology. Strong standards can also ensure U.S. workers are building the technologies that will be needed globally as other nations push aggressively to clean vehicles. NRDC will continue to work to strengthen standards in the near-term and into the future.

By coupling strong standards with bold stimulus investment, the U.S. can jump-start our economy, increase family-supporting auto- and truck-industry jobs and help provide equal access to clean air.

We are not destined for dangerous 6.3°F global warming. We just need to stay focused on the road to a clean transportation future.