In April this year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced new strict emissions limits that are considered vital to slowing global warming as people all over the world endure record-high temperatures, massive storms, and raging wildfires.
Transportation is the biggest source of pollution in the United States, generating about 29 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, with passenger vehicles contributing up to 59 percent of this sector’s emissions.
According to EPA, if 67 percent of new-vehicle sales are electric by 2032, the transportation industry could meet the limits necessary to mitigate climate change. However, this highly ambitious plan to slash emissions from passenger vehicles faces skepticism both about how realistic it is and whether it goes far enough.
Currently, carbon dioxide and methane levels in the atmosphere keep rising at an unprecedented pace, pushing our planet only a few tenths of a degree from the goal set out by the Paris Agreement in 2015 to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and leading to unprecedented heat waves and other extreme weather events.
Although a panel of the United Nations argued in March that there is still sufficient time to avoid the worst harm from climate change, they argued that the world will need to quickly cut two-thirds of emissions by 2035 to avoid even more extreme weather.
According to Peter Slowik, an expert in electric vehicles (EVs) at the International Council on Clean Transportation, in order to cut emissions enough to meet the goals set at the Paris Agreement, the proportion of new electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles sold would need to reach 67 percent by 2030 – higher than EPA’s projections of 60 percent. “The EPA proposal is a really great start to putting us on a Paris-compatible path. But no, it isn’t enough to comply with the Paris accord,” Slowik warned.
Moreover, while CO2 pollution from passenger vehicles would have to drop to 57 grams per mile by the end of this decade to reach the Paris goals, EPA’s regulation would only cut these emissions to 102 grams per mile by 2030 and to 82 by 2032.
In addition, although Slowik argues that carbon emissions from new gasoline vehicles would need to drop 3.5 percent each year from 2027 to 2032, EPA’s regulation fails to set any reduction for gas vehicles, while also not requiring automakers to boost EV sales directly.
However, according to Dave Cooke, a senior vehicles analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, even with slow vehicle turnover, EPA’s proposal would be a major step toward a zero-carbon transportation system by 2050.
Additionally, power plants which fuel EVs will also be converted to renewable energy such as solar and wind, thus further contributing to climate change mitigation. “We know that EVs provide a compounding benefit as we dramatically cut (electric power) grid emissions,” he explained.
On the other hand, the auto industry argues that EPA’s proposal is neither reasonable nor achievable in the time frame currently proposed. According to officials from the Alliance for Automotive Innovation – a trade group representing major companies such as Ford, General Motors, and Toyota – EPA is underestimating the cost and difficulty of manufacturing EV batteries, including short supplies of critical minerals that are also used in making laptops or cell phones – an obstacle compounded by sizable gaps in the charging network for long-distance travel and for people living in apartments.
Finally, while automakers continue to downsize engines and produce more efficient transmissions, the Alliance argues they should use their limited resources more on producing EVs than on developing more fuel-efficient technology for gas-powered engines.
Regardless of these setbacks, EPA’s proposal remains an important step towards reducing air pollution and curbing climate change. Yet, before adopting their final regulation in March 2024, the agency should consider the various criticisms currently emerging and, as much as possible, adapt their proposal to address some of the concerns voiced by both environmental organizations and the auto industry.