U.S. states and cities take responsibility on clean cars

The Trump administration has been busy rolling back dozens of environmental policies, and their latest move is a proposal to decimate the clean car standards. Unfortunately, not only do they want to roll back the 2025 efficiency and emissions standards previously agreed to by the auto industry, they want to revoke the authority of states to clean up their air.

The latest Trump rollback would freeze standards at their 2020 level indefinitely, instead of allowing efficiency to continue improving at 3-4% per year through 2025. With the freeze, average consumer label fuel economy goes from 26 miles per gallon (mpg) today to just 29 mpg in 2025, whereas the current standards would have delivered 35 mpg. The direct impacts of this are vast. According to the official National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) analyses, considering all the new vehicles impacted by the standards, it will result in 73 billion gallons more gasoline bought by U.S. drivers versus maintaining the current standards. This is equivalent to burning through the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve two to three times, or the amount the U.S. annually imports from Mexico or Iraq. The increased gasoline use will result in 800 million tons more carbon dioxide emissions, with an annualized emission increase equivalent to the emissions of Austria, Bangladesh, or Colombia.

More fundamentally, the standards rollback could halt progress toward cleaner cars in the U.S. Historically, every major vehicle emission reduction in the U.S. was precipitated by state action. From all the way back to the late 1960s, California has had the motivation, authority, and follow-through to implement standards. California, already having standards at the time, was given an option for waivers in the Clean Air Act by Congress. The applicable waivers have been granted by EPA dozens of times for various rules, allowing the state to enact more stringent regulations than those at the federal level. Many states have adopted these stronger rules, because they cannot meet their pollution-reduction requirements and climate goals without stronger policy tools. The Trump administration’s move to revoke state-level authority would take states out of the policy game indefinitely. (For an excellent discussion of the decades-long interplay between policymakers in California, other states, Federal agencies, see this National Academies’ report.)

So, what are states, which are required to reduce air pollution and climate emissions, to do? Policymakers across the U.S. are making it clear they won’t accept the rollback. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have adopted the California Low-Emission Vehicle regulations, 10 of which also have adopted the Zero-Emission Vehicle regulation. Governors from 16 states and Puerto Rico who oppose the rollback have joined the U.S. Climate Alliance and vowed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris agreement. California is being joined by 16 states and the District of Columbia in a suit against the administration to challenge the rollback as “arbitrary and capricious” due to the overwhelming science on the available technology and the clear benefits to society. Additional states have also said they’ll join the litigation. And, if that wasn’t enough, cities have started to really pile on: Over 400 mayors have condemned the federal move to weaken the standards. The figure below shows how widespread this state and city opposition to the rollback is.

State and cities with existing clean cars standards or opposing the Trump vehicle regulation rollback

States and cities opposing rollback of clean car standards
Among the 400+ cities, the 25 largest markets outside the identified states are labeled. For details, see Fact Sheet.

The jurisdictions standing in opposition to the Trump rollback represent a sizable share of the U.S. auto market. The 13 states implementing the Low-Emission Vehicle standards represent 35% of US vehicle sales. Adding the states who have either joined the litigation or vowed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions brings the total to 49% of US vehicles. Adding new vehicles from cities voicing opposition to the rollback (outside the states already counted) means all these climate-protecting states and cities amount to 55% of the U.S. auto market.

With Governors and Mayors of markets with over half of U.S. auto sales positioning themselves against the rollback, this ensures the regulation will be tied up in courts for years. This uncertainty makes it more apparent that states and cities will need to adopt alternative measures to meet their air quality and climate goals.

What sorts of actions might they pursue to reduce vehicle emissions? Well, we’re already seeing the beginning of that. There are now dozens of city, state, and utility actions promoting electric vehicles. Some leaders, such as those in California, are exploring bolder policies such as limits on registrations, new fees and taxes, banning combustion by 2040, and regulations to electrify fleet vehicles. We could see more “polluter pay” and feebate programs like those that have been implemented in France, Sweden and Norway, which impose higher taxes on higher-emission vehicles to give rebates to cleaner vehicles. Cities across Europe and China restrict the use of high-polluting vehicles and give preferential access to electric vehicles, and more Mayors are working to ensure major portions of their cities are accessible only to zero-emission vehicles. Certainly, top-down federal regulations are not the only way to limit vehicle emissions.

The auto industry has long feared a patchwork of vehicle pollution policies. But now the Trump administration is abdicating responsibility on cleaner vehicles by taking the biggest centralized policy tool off the table. To meet their health and climate obligations, this compels states and cities to not only fight the rollback but forge ahead on more progressive, local clean car policies.