How Drivers Will Decide the Fate of the Climate

5 minute read

Nesbit was the communications director to former Vice President Dan Quayle and is the author of Poison Tea.

Most of the American public has heard of President Donald Trump’s announcement that he intends to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, and most now oppose it. The United States is now the only country in the world to signal that it will abandon the treaty… But that actually isn’t the biggest climate fight in America now.

Thanks to reporting from the Washington Post and others, most Americans are aware of EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s efforts to dismantle the agency charged with environmental protection and regulating CO2 from utilities. On Tuesday, the EPA’s sole hearing on its plan to gut the Clean Power Plan featured coal miners in West Virginia. This is a stark contrast from when the EPA issued the plan, when the agency held 11 listening sessions to gather input prior to the proposal, followed by four public hearings in diverse cities across America… But the fight over the Clean Power Plan isn’t necessarily the most impactful climate fight either happening today, either.

No, the single most important climate fight in America now is over cars and trucks. In a little-noticed crossover data point tucked away in the Energy Information Agency’s sourcebook for energy, the transportation sector passed the power sector as the single biggest source of carbon emissions in the United States last year. It is the only big CO2 sector that’s rising in the U.S.

There are two very big battles about to occur in this sector, both of which are tied to decisions that the White House and the EPA will make in coming months. Congress will have a limited say in both. The real action will occur in executive and regulatory clashes, and then in the courts. How the domestic car companies — and, perhaps more importantly, the foreign car companies like Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo that have staked their global reputations on green innovation and electric vehicles — respond will matter immensely.

But there will be another consequential response, too. American consumers now have a very real, direct stake in America’s climate future — in ways that they don’t in the utility or energy efficiency sectors, the other big sources of CO2. They can reward — or punish — car companies for the political decisions they make in both of these looming fights.

Here’s the background.

Forty years ago, carbon dioxide emissions from electric power and CO2 from cars and trucks were roughly the same in the United States. Both were responsible for about 1,200 million metric tons of CO2 annually. By the turn of the century, annual electric power emissions had doubled — to more than 2,400 million metric tons of CO2 — before beginning to decline in 2008. CO2 from cars, meanwhile, also rose over the past four decades, but lagged behind the rise in the utility sector.

That ended in 2016. According to the Energy Information Agency’s Annual Energy Review, CO2 from cars, trucks and transportation generally became the biggest source of carbon emissions in the United States last year, eclipsing electric power emissions.

While CO2 emissions from utilities continue to decline and could start to reach levels not seen since the 1970s — thanks largely to a shift away from the use of coal as a source of power and a greater reliance on renewable energy and natural gas — the same can’t be said of CO2 emissions from cars and trucks. After leveling off and even falling for several years at the start of the Obama Administration, carbon emissions in the transportation sector began to rise again several years ago. It is now the only major sector of the U.S. economy going the wrong way on carbon emissions, according to EIA.

In 2009, senior Obama Administration officials agreed to bail out Detroit car companies that were in serious financial trouble. Part of that bailout deal was an agreement to make their fleets much more fuel-efficient: all car and truck models would need to meet an average of 54.5 miles-per-gallon by 2025, saving most American families hundreds or thousands of dollars a year. Combined with aggressive regulatory standards in California and a dozen other states, those targets all but guaranteed that carbon emissions from the transportation sector would eventually begin to decline again.

The 2016 presidential election changed that political calculus. GM, Ford, Toyota, Volvo and Volkswagen all decided jointly through a lobbying alliance to challenge the fuel efficiency targets during a “mid-term review.” The alliance has also been actively asking Washington whether it might consider rolling back California’s aggressive efforts to keep the air clean over its major cities.

Both are huge political mistakes that could cost them millions of loyal consumers if their lobbying actions in Washington were held up side-by-side with their public statements on moving to more fuel-efficient cars and electric vehicles.

GM, for instance, has staked its reputation on a cleaner energy future. GM CEO Mary Barra has announced that her company plans to move to a zero-emissions future with a substantial commitment to electric vehicles. Ford has said much the same publicly. In a letter attached to its annual sustainability report, Ford’s chief executive, Jim Hackett, and its chairman, William Ford, both pledged that its company was “absolutely committed” to reducing emissions and improving fuel efficiency. Toyota, Volvo and Volkswagen have all made similar, very public pledges to move rapidly to a future that no longer includes cars and trucks powered primarily by gasoline.

Yet all five are now lobbying behind efforts to weaken fuel-efficiency targets either through legislation in Congress or executive action by the Trump Administration. This may seem like a smart play in Washington. But it only works if the public never hears about it.

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