Soapbox

Automakers need to stick with fuel-efficiency plan

The second phase of fuel economy improvements requires that by 2025, the average new car should get 54.5 miles per gallon and emit dramatically lower levels of carbon pollution than 2008 versions.
The second phase of fuel economy improvements requires that by 2025, the average new car should get 54.5 miles per gallon and emit dramatically lower levels of carbon pollution than 2008 versions. Associated Press file

It’s a great success story in the fight against climate change. The U.S. auto industry has met President Barack Obama’s tough fuel economy and carbon pollution standards, as cars built in 2016 average 25 miles per gallon and emit the lowest rate of carbon ever.

But rather than celebrating this triumph of American engineering and using it as a platform to achieve needed new gains, some auto companies want to roll back the next phase of tougher emissions and efficiency standards.

For the sake of our planet – and our health – we cannot bow to their demands. Instead, we must insist that they must fulfill their original pledge to achieve these goals.

Carbon pollution from motor vehicles is the second largest contributor to climate change in the United States. Reducing this pollution is essential to our health and safety.

Ominously, scientists warn that climate change is happening faster with harsher than previously predicted consequences. For example, the United States Global Change Research Program recently found that unchecked climate change will more directly harm our health, resulting in increased premature deaths due to extreme heat, smog, floods and tropical diseases.

When Obama took office in 2009, new cars only had to meet 1989 fuel economy standards. His administration developed two phases of fuel economy improvements, eventually doubling the old standards by 2025. The White House also established the first-ever limits on carbon pollution from vehicles. Auto companies and their workers supported these improvements.

The second phase requires that by 2025, the average new car should get 54.5 miles per gallon and emit dramatically lower levels of carbon pollution than 2008 versions. This will prevent an entire year’s worth of our pollution from entering the atmosphere over the life of the program.

Despite their past support of the 2025 standards, some auto executives now claim that they can’t meet the requirements. They complain that lower gasoline prices reduced demand for more efficient vehicles, so companies cannot sell the mix of vehicles necessary to meet required fleet mileage averages. This claim rings false on several counts.

First, who knows what gasoline prices will be next year, much less in 2025? Given oil price volatility, demand for fuel efficient vehicles could skyrocket.

Second, even if gas prices stay at rock-bottom levels, automakers can still meet the 2025 standards by using modern fuel efficiency technologies, such as high-tech batteries, to reduce gas consumption.

Third, they can stop spending billions of dollars trying to convince people to buy unnecessary SUVs, and redirect their advertising budgets toward making gas sippers sexy.

The companies’ concern about future standards strains credibility. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that one of every four vehicles produced last year is at or close to compliance with the 2018 carbon pollution standards. Surely, auto engineers have the skill to make additional improvements.

Achievement of the fuel economy and carbon pollution standards is a pillar of U.S. plans to meet the landmark 2015 Paris climate agreement. Without them, other nations may renege on their promises too, unraveling the agreement and accelerating the looming climate disaster.

Throughout my 40 years in Congress, I took actions to protect our public health and environment. I was especially proud to write and pass legislation that strengthened the Clean Air Act. It empowers the federal government to limit carbon pollution from motor vehicles.

That’s why I urge the presidential candidates to pledge to resist auto industry lobbying and instead keep the 2025 standards in place. The future of our planet and our health hangs in the balance.

Henry A. Waxman represented California’s 33rd Congressional District from 1975 to 2015. He is currently chairman of Waxman Strategies, a public affairs firm. Contact him at henry@waxmanstrategies.com.

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