After decades of battling, complaining and other maneuvering over fuel economy standards, a new national standard was established last week, rising to an average 35.5 mpg by 2016. President Obama’s announcement to increase corporate average fuel economy standards (otherwise known as CAFE) represents a welcome change in the right direction.
The new federal standard represents consistency nationwide, replacing the dual standard that had been in effect. California and at least fourteen other states representing about 50% of US population had adopted California’s stricter limits on tailpipe emissions than federal standards required.
California’s Air Resources Board (CARB) has been down this road before, mandating cleaner tailpipe emissions to combat smog from the 1970’s through the 1990’s. Because of California’s car market size, CARB’s action has raised national expectations, altered the national market, and triggered changes in US vehicle design to boost air quality.
In 1967, the Federal Air Quality Act was signed into law, and it gave California the ability to enforce its own, stricter emissions regulations for new vehicles. This was mostly due to the fact that California was suffering from the worst air quality in the nation at the time. That same year, legislation signed by Governor Ronald Reagan created the Air Resources Board, and mandated that each county have an air pollution control district to enforce local, state and federal air laws. The state of California has been at the forefront ever since, having been granted special authority from the Clean Air Act of 1970.
In 2005, California requested a waiver under the Clean Air Act to require car makers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent in 2016. Blocked by politics in March of 2007 the US EPA denied California’s request for a waiver and the issue went to the courts for resolution.
Obama’s action is commendable as it reestablishes a national standard to set direct controls on greenhouse gases that pollute the air and contribute to global warming. According to the White House, because the Department of Transportation and EPA will adopt the same rule, it will avoid an inefficient system of regulations that separately govern the fuel economy of autos and the carbon emissions they produce. A study released January 28th by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences raised the bar for effective policy change. The study revealed long term impacts of climate change, predicting even if carbon emissions are drastically reduced, droughts and other severe climate changes would persist for 1000 years.
Doing nothing or doing less would mean even more dire consequences. The new CAFE standards brings the US more in alignment with higher fuel economy standards in Europe, Japan, China and Australia, while benefiting automakers with more certainty, consistent standards and simplified product mix while also benefiting society as higher vehicle efficiency means reduced greenhouse gas emission and other pollutants.