Dave Cooke
Senior Vehicles Analyst

The web is abuzz right now over the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, and rightly so—this is one of the President’s key items under his Climate Action Plan. But did you know that the EPA recently proposed another major climate regulation? In June, the EPA and NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) proposed a major new phase of regulations that will reduce fuel consumption and global warming emissions from heavy-duty trucks.

Trucks are a major contributor to climate change

Since 1990, the United States has seen a slight (~5%) increase in its net global warming emissions, approximately split between increases in emissions from stationary sources like power plants and mobile sources like cars and trucks. Over that same timeframe, miles traveled by light-duty vehicles has increased about 35%, while miles traveled by heavy-duty trucks has increased by a whopping 88%.  Emissions from commercial trucks now make up over 7% of the total global warming emissions emitted by the United States, nearly double the share in 1990 and increasing each year.

While the first phase of truck standards that went into effect last year will help slow this rise, over the next 20 years heavy-duty truck emissions are expected to grow by 15%, while those from passenger vehicles will fall by 23%. In fact, the expected rise in emissions from heavy-duty trucks means that on-road emissions will remain above 1990 levels for the foreseeable future under current policies.

Global Warming Emissions (LDVs, HDVs) (1990-2040)

Over the past decade, global warming emissions and fuel consumption by commercial vehicles has continued to increase, while those of passenger vehicles is declining. We need strong standards for heavy-duty vehicles to put the entire transportation sector on a sustainable future course. (1990-2011 data from EPA; 2012-2040 data from EIA)

Why will trucks increase emissions without action?

There are two reasons why passenger vehicles and commercial trucks are on diverging paths when it comes to fuel use and emissions, one related to miles traveled and the other to efficiency.

Commercial truck use is more directly correlated to the economy, as one would expect, and so there is a larger growth in miles traveled for trucks compared to passenger vehicles as the economy improves. However, this small difference in growth comes nowhere near explaining why despite both cars and trucks increasing miles traveled, passenger vehicle emissions are expected to fall while truck emissions are expected to rise.

The biggest reason for the continued increase in emissions from the heavy-duty sector is the simple fact that truck efficiency has, on average, remained stuck in the 1970s at about 6 miles per gallon. Fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles are slated to cut fuel consumption from new cars by nearly 50%, compared to 2010; however, current standards for trucks would reduce fuel consumption by just 14%.  We must do better—and we can.

How to reduce fuel use and emissions from heavy-duty trucks

Our analysis shows that cost-effective technologies like trailer aerodynamic devices and waste heat recovery can be implemented over the next decade to improve the fuel economy of new trucks by 40% by 2025, compared to 2010. Strong regulation can help break through the market barriers that inhibit further reduction in fuel consumption from heavy-duty trucks. Last month, the EPA and NHTSA proposed rules that would achieve a 36% reduction by 2027—a good start, but we know they can do better.

Today I’m in Chicago, testifying at a public hearing held by the EPA and NHTSA about how their proposed regulations can be improved. Achieving a 40% reduction by 2025 would save an additional 200,000 barrels of oil per day in 2035 compared to the agencies’ proposal—enough savings to offset the growing rise in fuel use and emissions from these trucks and help put the entire transportation sector on a more sustainable path.

With a strong rule in place, the average tractor-trailer driver would save about $30,000 in fuel each year, and consumers like you or me would save over $100 each year in freight costs. Making that happen now is a no-brainer.