EVs Critical Solution For Climate Crisis, But Biden Administration Stopping Short on Trucks

April 13, 2023 | 4:17 pm
Josiah Farrow/Unsplash
Dave Cooke
Senior Vehicles Analyst

Transportation is the largest source of global warming emissions in the United States, making it a critical piece of the puzzle to addressing climate change. Every new vehicle sold today could be on the road for two or even three decades, which means that achieving a goal for 2050 requires immediate action. This is what makes yesterday’s action by the Biden administration so critical—EPA proposed new emissions targets for both passenger vehicles and heavy-duty trucks manufactured and sold through 2032 that will accelerate the transition to electrification already underway.

Electrifying transportation is a necessary component of addressing climate change. But it also represents a critical solution to addressing the longstanding harms to public health from our transportation system, the costs of which are disproportionately borne by communities of color. While yesterday’s proposals are a welcome step and will go a long way to addressing climate change, the administration’s actions to address the harmful soot and particulate pollution from heavy-duty trucks impacting local communities fall short.

Below, I’ve summarized the key points of the two proposals put forth today and what we hope to see moving forward. There is a monthslong process ahead to get these rules over the finish line: through robust engagement with frontline communities, the administration can finalize and implement strong passenger vehicle and heavy-duty truck standards centering the needs of those most impacted by the rules and targeting the complete elimination of tailpipe pollution.

An ambitious and achievable goal to electrify privately owned vehicles

While complementary action to reduce car usage is necessary to address climate change, to the extent the United States continues to be reliant upon privately owned passenger cars and trucks, those miles must be electric, powered by an increasingly clean grid. This proposal will help accelerate that necessary transition.

Recent survey results show there is more demand for electric cars and trucks than there are electric vehicles being manufactured at the moment. With folks generally purchasing vehicles only once a decade, and more often than not doing so on the used market, it is imperative that new vehicles electrify ASAP. Under this proposal, up to two-thirds of the new vehicle fleet could be electric by 2032. This exceeds the President’s stated goal, and it’s nearly on track to where we need to be, which is to fully electrify the new vehicle fleet by 2035.

Importantly, this proposal recognizes the tremendous amount of support for this transition, including the two pieces of climate-related legislation Congress passed last term. Incentives for manufacturing, infrastructure, and purchasing support the rapid growth in electric vehicles on the timescale necessary to meet climate targets.

One critical point that was perhaps missed in the initial coverage of the proposal is how much more efficient the remaining gasoline-powered vehicles are expected to be. Despite the growing share of electric vehicles projected by this rule, 40 percent of vehicles sold in 2030 even under this proposal will still be powered by gasoline. For those vehicles, we think there is further opportunity for improvement. While EPA has projected gasoline vehicles to improve by close to 20 percent between now and 2032 in order to meet its standards, largely the result of standards already on the books through 2026, this could and must be closer to 30-35 percent to be consistent with our urgent need to address climate change. And, to the extent possible, we need EPA to be driving efficiency improvements for electric vehicles as well.

Protecting public health and the climate

One critical aspect of the light-duty vehicle proposal that has also not been covered is that these newly proposed emissions standards don’t just pertain to global warming emissions: EPA has proposed new fleetwide average standards for smog-forming emissions (nitrogen oxides [NOX] and volatile organic compounds [VOCs]) as well as particulate matter (PM) for passenger cars and trucks.

Electrification can eliminate tailpipe emissions entirely, which means directly reducing harmful pollution affecting the air we breathe. This is particularly important for the disproportionately BIPOC populations along freeways and near hubs of freight activity like ports and warehouses. Setting a “multi-pollutant” standard as EPA has proposed for light-duty vehicles drives simultaneously emissions reductions from both the best available emissions-reducing technologies for all pollutants, whether for gasoline-powered vehicles (e.g., gasoline particulate filters for PM and hybridization to reduce CO2) or reductions resulting from shifting marketshare towards vehicles with zero tailpipe emissions.

Unfortunately, while the Biden administration moved forward with directly addressing the harmful smog-forming and particulate pollution from passenger cars and trucks, it did not do so for the heavy-duty truck sector, which means its proposal is not necessarily going to drive the transition to zero emissions needed for public health.

UCS and our allies have called for the agency to adopt a multi-pollutant strategy for its heavy-duty rulemaking, and we will continue to advocate for it during the comment period.

The heavy-duty truck proposal needs more ambition, urgency

While recent headlines have called EPA’s light-duty vehicle emissions proposal “strict,” “dramatic,” and “ambitious,” virtually nothing has been said about the heavy-duty proposal also released today. Unfortunately, those words don’t really apply here.

On the plus side, EPA is finally putting forth new emissions standards that recognize the shift towards electrifying the heavy-duty vehicle sector. The downside, however, is that the agency’s proposal does not appear to ride that wave of momentum.

The agency just authorized enforcement of state standards that will ensure over 50 percent of new heavy-duty trucks sold in those states will be electric by 2032. Manufacturers claim they are targeting even more aggressive electric truck sales, with plans to electrify more than half new heavy-duty truck sales by 2030 according to the manufacturers themselves. And the new purchase incentives for commercial trucks are expected already to drive electrification beyond those targets (upwards of 50 percent by 2032), even in absence of EPA action.

EPA’s proposal falls short of these ongoing actions, with the preferred alternative driving no more than 40 percent electrification. The momentum is there for new heavy-duty vehicles to be entirely electric by 2035—for fleets, what matters is the total cost of ownership, and electrification can cut operating costs, as well as emissions. Even the most stringent scenario in the proposal fails to create a workable transition to zero emission by 2035. Were EPA to set a more ambitious standard, that would help ensure the level of investment needed in infrastructure and manufacturing to meet this goal.

The biggest flaw in the proposal is that by focusing exclusively on regulating global warming emissions, the proposal sacrifices certainty in its efforts—while every modeling exercise is speculative, this leaves open the possibility that instead of driving a transition to the zero-emissions solutions needed, EPA’s rule will promote false solutions like hydrogen combustion engines that would do nothing to alleviate the tailpipe pollution harming local communities.

The proposals are a step in the right direction, but more is needed

Targeting a complete transition to electrify new vehicles by 2035 would both address our climate crisis and recognize and address the unjust burden felt by communities today as a result of heavy-duty trucks. This is a critical window for action. The agency’s proposal may not guarantee such a transition for passenger cars and trucks, but it doesn’t even attempt to encourage one in the freight sector: that has to change.

Over the coming weeks, we will continue to dig into the proposed rules to build support for that transition. There will be public hearings so that the general public can weigh in verbally, as well as via written testimony. It’s important that the EPA hears what it is like on the ground, to understand the lived experiences of today as well as the opportunities for a cleaner and more sustainable transportation future for us all.

UCS will be focused on strengthening both proposals, pressing EPA to meet the moment and finalize light- and heavy-duty truck standards targeting a zero-emission future. And we will be asking our supporters and partners to do the same. The opportunity for a just transition to zero emissions is now—and we need the administration to seize it.