State policy outpaces feds on car emissions cuts — analysis

Source: By Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, August 17, 2020

States are leading the way on cutting greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector at the end of President Trump’s first term, a new analysis contends.

The findings by the Rhodium Group, an economic consulting firm, centered on two recent state-level initiatives to slash pollution from cars and trucks.

The efforts come after the Trump administration rolled back clean car standards, the most significant climate rules established by former President Obama.

The first initiative involves five car companies and the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the main air pollution regulator in the Golden State.

The five automakers — Ford Motor Co., Honda Motor Co. Ltd., Volkswagen AG, BMW of North America LLC and Volvo — agreed to follow more stringent tailpipe emissions standards than those proposed by the Trump administration in its Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule (Greenwire, July 25, 2019).

The analysis found that the deals with the five automakers would result in a much greater reduction in emissions than if the automakers simply followed the SAFE rule. Rhodium estimated that the CARB agreements would lead to an additional reduction of 136 million to 148 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2035.

That’s equivalent to taking up to 31 million passenger vehicles off the roads for a year, according to EPA’s greenhouse gas equivalencies calculator.

If all major U.S. automakers reached similar deals with CARB, the emissions benefits could be much larger, the analysis found.

In that scenario, 451 million to 489 million metric tons of CO2 would be prevented from entering the atmosphere — more than three times as much.

That scenario, however, appears unlikely. Other major automakers — including General Motors Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV — expressed support for a key part of the SAFE rule in a legal filing last fall (Climatewire, Oct. 29, 2019).

Yet if former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, defeats President Trump in the November election, a future Biden administration could undo the SAFE rule and institute even tougher clean car standards than those proposed by the Obama administration.

In that case, more automakers could be persuaded to join the deal with California while the Biden team’s rulemaking efforts were underway, said Emily Wimberger, a climate economist at Rhodium and a co-author of the analysis.

“Maybe the calculus is different if there’s a different federal administration,” said Wimberger, who previously served as chief economist at CARB.

CARB did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication. Last year, CARB Chairwoman Mary Nichols criticized the Trump administration for its approach to transportation. “We at CARB are spending way too much of our time fighting with the administration in Washington about the future of standards for existing vehicles,” she said.

‘Nothing to sniff at’

The second effort covered by the Rhodium analysis is an agreement among 15 states and the District of Columbia to transition to 100% electric trucks and buses by 2050.

The states signed a memorandum of understanding last month to “work collaboratively to advance and accelerate the market for electric medium- and heavy-duty vehicles” (Greenwire, July 14).

The MOU stands to reduce U.S. oil demand by 709 million barrels to 740 million barrels cumulatively by 2045, depending on the pace of economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the analysis found.

The declining oil demand would, in turn, take a big bite out of emissions — to the tune of 277 million to 289 million metric tons by 2045.

If a future Biden administration established a similar federal program covering all 50 states, oil demand would plunge by 4.6 billion to 4.9 billion barrels, prompting emissions to fall by a whopping 1.8 to 1.9 gigatons.

“Those reductions are nothing to sniff at. When you start talking in gigatons, it’s a significant reduction,” said Wimberger, the co-author of the analysis.

Still, the analysis cautioned that achieving 100% zero-emissions vehicle sales by 2050 would increase U.S. electricity demand by 16%.

“There’s going to be an increased demand for electricity, and we need to think thoughtfully about where that’s coming from. If we fill it with electricity that’s coming from fossil fuels, we’re going to have backsliding,” Wimberger said.

“So it does point to the fact that you don’t want to have climate policy in a silo,” she added. “You want to think about transportation and cleaning up the grid together.”

The MOU was organized by Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM), a regional nonprofit association of eight state air quality agencies.

“I was so pleased to see this. It’s a very positive analysis,” said Coralie Cooper, deputy director of NESCAUM.

“As the federal government is rolling back climate programs and regulations, the states are moving ahead and implementing programs to reduce greenhouse gases,” she said.