U.S. and Canada: On vehicle emissions compliance and enforcement, two feds are better than one

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Volkswagen Dieselgate scandal in terms of raising international awareness around the critical importance of having robust provisions in place to monitor and enforce compliance with vehicle emissions regulations. Legal cases involving VW and several other manufacturers in jurisdictions around the world remind us that it’s not enough to simply have strong regulations on the books. This is increasingly true as vehicles become increasingly complex computers on wheels, and sophisticated software controls the systems that impact fuel use and emissions. Comprehensive testing requirements at various points in the vehicle lifecycle (e.g., conformity-of-production testing, in-use testing, etc.) are necessary to ensure that vehicles on the road are in fact only polluting below limits defined in emission standards.

Since the VW story broke, the ICCT has poured new resources into building up our compliance and enforcement (C&E) work, dedicating funds and staff to supporting governments in evaluating vehicle emissions performance and assisting policymakers in strengthening mandatory compliance and enforcement provisions of existing regulations. ICCT’s C&E team recently released a report that provides a comprehensive snapshot of compliance and enforcement efforts in 14 countries and regions around the world and highlights concrete ways those efforts can be improved.

As someone whose work is often focused on the U.S. and Canada, I was particularly interested in what the report had to say about them. Each country is assessed individually in the report, though they collaborate both formally and informally in their C&E efforts. The report outlines several strengths—including legislative framework and resources, vehicle testing campaigns, and the use or corrective actions such as recalls and fines— and some areas of improvement. The good news is that both the U.S. and Canada are very well positioned to build on their existing collaborative relationship, which is formally codified in the U.S.Canada Air Quality Agreement. The original motivation for the Agreement was transboundary acid rain in eastern North America, but it also set up a broad and flexible framework to combat other air pollutants from the full range of mobile and stationary emission sources.

Over the years, the Agreement has expanded to include several activities related to vehicle testing and certification. Approximately 98.5% of the models sold in Canada are also certified and sold in the United States, so a coordinated approach to vehicle emissions control greatly benefits industry, as regulations on both sides of the border are explicitly designed to reduce the testing and reporting requirements on manufacturers. For example, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) typically accepts vehicle certificates of conformity from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), meaning that manufacturers are not required to carry out duplicate sets of testing and reporting (emission limits and regulatory timing are highly aligned between the two countries). The partnership is also beneficial for regulatory agencies in both countries, because recognizing each other’s work not only simplifies the administrative process but also frees up resources and staff to conduct more targeted surveillance and testing. For example, Canada can prioritize its testing effort on vehicles that are not sold in the U.S. and then use its additional capacity to test U.S.-certified vehicles, which complements the EPA’s testing effort.

As both U.S. and Canada work to improve their C&E programs, we applaud their team effort to tackle air quality challenges, encourage them to continue to strengthen this partnership, and hope to see more such regional collaborations around the globe whenever the circumstances allow. Because when it comes to emission control in the highly integrated North American vehicle market, two feds are better than one.