Rolling Back the Rollbacks: Putting Cars and Trucks Back on Track to Meeting Climate Goals

April 16, 2021 | 2:13 pm
View from upper level of Ford display 2018 North American International Auto ShowJoe Ross/flickr
Dave Cooke
Senior Vehicles Analyst

The White House is getting ready to release the next round of targets for its commitment under the Paris Agreement. We are calling for at least a 50% reduction in global warming emissions by 2030, compared to 2005. As the largest single source of global warming emissions in the United States, passenger cars and trucks are a critical piece of this effort.

With his announcement on day one to revisit the previous administration’s rollback, President Biden signaled a recognition that it’s time to correct course. Below I describe what states have done to push back on the rollback, why the federal government must do much more than that, and how that sets us up not just for our near-term climate goals, but our long-term plan for a net-zero transportation sector by 2050. To get serious on global warming emissions from passenger vehicles, the Biden administration’s first step should be immediately reinstating the 2012 standards rolled back by the Trump administration.

The rollback and state action

Nearly a decade ago, fuel economy and emissions standards were put in place targeting a 50 percent reduction in emissions from new passenger cars and trucks by 2025. To date, those standards have saved consumers about $120 billion at the pump, and cars and trucks of all sizes are more efficient today than ever before. Unfortunately, the Trump administration rolled back this progress, virtually stopping it in its tracks by dramatically reducing requirements on manufacturers beginning in the 2021 model year (i.e. the new vehicles being sold right now).

Because of the simultaneous attack on states’ authority to set their own vehicle emissions standards and the recognition that the rollback threatens much needed progress on addressing climate change, California (and the states that follow their stronger emissions standards) put in place agreements with individual automakers that go above and beyond what is required by the current federal program. These agreements were a critical step at the time, showing that even some automakers recognized that the industry can and should be doing much more on climate than was required by the rollback, and provided some additional certainty that would lead to greater emissions reductions and increased penetration of electric vehicles.

How EPA and NHTSA can and must course correct by 2026

While state leadership was critical given the rollback, the current EPA and NHTSA can and must do much more to address climate change. Automakers have called for standards that fall halfway between the current standards and what they agreed to back in 2012, a proposal roughly in line with the California framework. Unfortunately, such half measures are nowhere near sufficient to meeting our climate objectives and fall well short of what the industry is capable of, as our modeling shows (see figure).

Our analysis looks at what would happen if the voluntary agreements now in effect between California and BMW, Ford, Honda, Volvo, and Volkswagen were adopted by the federal government and applied to all automakers (blue bar). While this provides some benefits, this pales in comparison to the original 2012 standards (black bar). Owing to the time needed to conduct a rulemaking, it is possible that the Biden administration may not be able to put those standards back into place until 2023 or 2024 (so called “snapback” scenarios, because I modeled the 2012 standards snapping back into effect in 2023 and 2024, dark and light gray bars, respectively). However, even those scenarios are able to recover a greater share of the benefits of the original 2012 rule than what the auto industry is proposing.

While automakers have pressed for the Biden administration to implement half-measures by implementing a voluntary framework between states and automakers implement agreed to during the Trump administration, simply snapping back as quickly as possible to the standards put in place when President Biden was Vice President represents a much greater opportunity for emissions reductions and could recover a much greater share of benefits lost under the previous administration.

As I have reiterated in countless blogs, reports, and public comments over the past five years, automakers have the ability to easily meet the standards agreed to way back in 2012. This was first re-affirmed in 2017 by the Obama administration, but it’s only become clearer over time, as manufacturers continue to be compliant with the program while deploying a mere fraction of the available technology.

The benefits of going strong

The benefits of reinstating those 2012 standards as quickly as possible are not limited to global warming emissions. While the previous administration’s own analysis noted the hazard of its own weak standards, our updated modeling efforts show just how much more beneficial an immediate reversal of that policy would be for society. Reducing oil use means improved health outcomes and more money in the pockets of consumers, but this also translates into more jobs and helps to accelerate the transition to electrification needed to meet climate goals, including the 2030 targets under the Paris agreement.

Replacing the status quo with a proposal comparable to the voluntary California agreements already in place, as proposed by the auto industry, would offer some benefits. However, UCS modeling shows that reinstating the 2012 standards would save consumers tens of billions of dollars more, protecting lives and increasing jobs. At the same time, it would also lead to up to 1.2 million more electric vehicles on the road by 2026, which will help promote the accelerated growth in electrification needed to meet climate targets for 2030 and beyond. (The range in the snapback data illustrates, in part, uncertainty about whether the rules are reinstated in 2023 or 2024.)

An eye towards the future

Passenger cars and trucks are the largest single source of global warming emissions in the United States, so it’s no surprise that analyses that look at limiting warming to +1.5°C include fuel economy and emissions standards and a shift to zero-emission vehicles as critical policies. The slow turnover of the vehicle fleet makes near-term actions on passenger cars and trucks important when thinking about long-term goals, since a vehicle sold in 2025 could be on the road until 2040 or longer, but an accelerated transition to electrified transport can also take advantage of a rapidly decarbonizing electric grid to provide immediate reductions in emissions critical for achieving near-term climate goals.

Reinstating the 2012 standards as rapidly as possible will provide immediate gains and aid the administration in meeting its 2030 targets, but it is especially important in setting the foundation for future improvements. By 2026, strong targets are estimated to help put up to 2.1 million more new EVs on the road than the status quo, but future standards will have to push that number much higher.

By 2030, the United States will need at least 35 percent of new vehicles sold to be electric in order to be on track for a net-zero emission transportation system by 2050, and even greater if automakers continue to disinvest from improvements in gasoline-powered vehicles. Setting the strongest standards possible by 2025 helps accelerate the industry’s readiness to meet such a challenge and is a complementary step to President Biden’s American Jobs Plan, which promotes manufacturing and production incentives for electrification as well as supportive EV charging infrastructure (which must be provided equitably).

As the Biden administration gets ready to put forth its commitments under the Paris agreement, it has an opportunity to commit to its climate goals by ending the five-year fight over the next five years of vehicle improvements by reimplementing the standards that should have stayed on the books this entire time. This is the foundational step needed today, so that we can build towards the electrified future of tomorrow.