Common ground on clean transportation

On June 29, 2016, President Obama, President Peña Nieto, and Prime Minister Trudeau laid out a formidable shared agenda at the North American Leaders’ Summit on a disparate set of issues that ranged from LGBT rights to global climate change. They all tactfully tiptoed around he-who-shall-not-be-named, but made their arguments for inclusion and international cooperation clear enough that Voldemort himself could understand. But even within such an ambitious and far-reaching statement of common purpose, the agreement on clean and efficient transportation, ranging from a commitment to work on extending control of ship emissions to the southern borders of Mexico to goals and timelines for the full regional alignment of car, truck and fuel standards, was a highlight. Aligning standards throughout North America allows the U.S., Mexico, and Canada to take advantage of the economic and market integration of the region to meet shared goals for climate, air quality and the health of all North American citizens, at the lowest possible cost.

While Mexico has long been a strong supporter of global efforts to address climate change—recently it was one of the first nations to submit its intended contributions on climate reductions—the air quality crisis in Mexico City has put conventional pollutant emissions from vehicles back at center stage. The unambiguous commitment of Mexico’s President Peña Nieto to address these challenges head on, for example, by requiring cars and trucks sold in Mexico to meet the same stringent standards as those exported to the U.S. and Canada, are clear in the Leaders’ Statement (here in Spanish and in English) and Action Plan (here in Spanish and in English) coming out of the Summit.

Here’s the key paragraph from the Leaders’ Statement highlighting on-road vehicle emissions:

“Canada, the U.S., and Mexico commit to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from light- and heavy-duty vehicles by aligning fuel efficiency and/or GHG emission standards out to 2025 and 2027, respectively.  We further commit to reduce air pollutant emissions by aligning air pollutant emission standards for light- and heavy-duty vehicles and corresponding ultra low-sulphur fuel standards by 2018.  In addition, we will encourage greener freight transportation throughout North America by expanding the SmartWay program to Mexico.”

And here are the details added in the Action Plan on the key regulatory steps:

  • Implement aligned, world-class, ultra low-sulphur diesel fuel and heavy-duty vehicle (HDV) exhaust air pollutant emission standards by 2018.
  • Implement aligned, light-duty vehicle (LDV) and HDV fuel efficiency and/or greenhouse gas standards out to 2025 and 2027, respectively. 
  • Align LDV exhaust and evaporative air pollutant emission standards with full U.S. Tier 2 standards by 2018 and fully phase in Tier 3 standards by 2025, while also implementing ultra low-sulphur gasoline standards.

In order to solve the air quality crisis, Mexico needs to achieve complete alignment with the international best practices of the U.S. and Canada. And because the cleanest of vehicle technologies are already long developed and well proven—even already manufactured in Mexico—there is no need to futz around with extra time for the manufacturers to comply or interim standards that failed miserably to reduce emissions. This is clearly the moment to do it. The timeline included in the president’s commitment is ambitious but doable, but only if Mexico takes swift and decisive regulatory action.

It should start with the new fuel quality standards, recently proposed by the Regulatory Energy Commission (CRE). While the proposal moves Mexico in the right direction, some important improvements are needed, especially advancing availability of ultralow sulfur diesel and getting to 10-ppm sulfur gasoline, which is needed to achieve the lowest possible emissions from passenger cars. ICCT’s comments to CRE showed that, with these changes to bring the proposal in line with the commitments of the Summit, the fuel standards and the vehicle emissions standards they enable will together achieve an 80% reduction in particulate matter (PM) emissions, a 70% reduction in nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions and a 50% reduction in hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide (CO) emissions over the next twenty years. Our analysis also showed that strengthening inspection and maintenance programs could reduce near-term NOx and CO emissions by about 13%, but lowering the sulfur in gasoline and diesel will achieve more important and immediate reductions impact, achieving substantial reductions in all the pollutants of concern. One thing is clear though, unless new vehicles are required to be much cleaner, none of these gains can be sustained and emissions will begin to rise again. While the initial response to the air quality crisis focused on reducing emissions from vehicles already on the road (see my recent blog), President Peña Nieto’s commitment is the only path forward to truly resolve it in the long term.

Along with fuel standard, the new emissions standard for trucks and buses is also critical. Because emissions limits for PM from trucks and buses haven’t changed in twenty-two years, brand new trucks and buses sold in Mexico today are basically just as polluting as the 65% of the fleet that has been on the road for up to two decades (vehicles older than twenty years are generally used much less, mostly balancing out their higher emissions). Mexico’s Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) issued the proposal to reduce emissions from new trucks and buses by 90%–98% back in December 2014. Some manufacturers are still asking for transition time to sell their much higher-polluting Euro V vehicles and are arguing that the new vehicles will be much too expensive for Mexico (another blog post puts that myth to rest). Any delays would lock in higher emissions and the resulting health impacts for years to come, while implementation of the standards as proposed will result in an immediate and long-term reduction in PM emissions, with even more dramatic and rapid reductions possible if additional programs are adopted to accelerate retrofit and replacement of the existing vehicles.

To address emissions associated with international shipping, the Leaders’ Statement also committed to work together “to support implementation of a North American Emission Control Area that includes Mexico.” While the high exposure associated with vehicles operating in cities probably means that on-road vehicles have greater health impacts, by comparing the recent EPA report to the SEMARNAT inventory we can see that the PM and NOx emissions from ships operating in the Mexican portion of the hoped-for ECA are twice the total emissions from the land-based transportation sector. ECA implementation would reduce those PM emissions by 70% and NOx by 80%. Mexico is the innocent bystander in much of this pollution: 78% of the ships are just passing through Mexican waters, not even calling on Mexican ports or contributing to the Mexican economy in any way. Because the great majority of vessels passing through Mexican waters would also be passing through the emission-controlled waters to the north, virtually no capital costs would be required to extend these benefits to Mexico, just a small increase in operating costs associated with requirements to continue using cleaner fuel and emissions control equipment while operating in Mexican waters.

The commitment to work together to reduce global climate and conventional pollutant emissions from vehicles will bring environmental, economic, and health benefits to the entire region. Mexico needs to take decisive action to achieve these goals and can currently count on the rest of North America as supportive partners. One can only hope that future leaders are so well aligned.

Clean air Fuels