What might US-China collaboration on clean fuels and vehicles focus on?

My colleague Nic Lutsey recently blogged about a new development in US-China climate collaboration: a focus on improving the efficiency of heavy-duty trucks. Trucks are a large and growing contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and petroleum consumption in both countries, making them a prime target for climate mitigation policy and a promising area of cooperation between the two countries.

But this collaboration also has great potential to deliver direct health benefits beyond its climate change mitigation impact. The Report of the US-China Climate Change Working Group notes that heavy-duty vehicles don’t just contribute to climate change, but they also “significantly degrade urban and regional air quality.” Indeed, in both the US and in China, heavy-duty trucks are disproportionately large sources of air pollution, especially emissions of NOx and particulate matter (PM). (For example, in China, trucks make up just 5% of the vehicle fleet, but emit 61% and 47% of vehicular PM and NOx, respectively!).

Diesel PM (aka soot) is especially concerning. Tiny diesel particles, long known to be dangerous to human health, are predominantly composed of black carbon—a climate pollutant that is the second largest contributor to global warming after CO2. So in other words, cleaning up diesels is a major double-win for both climate and health.

Fortunately, the ways to reduce pollutant emissions from diesels are well-known: a one-two punch of stringent fuel quality and tailpipe emission standards. Both of these are highlighted prominently in the Working Group Report as areas ripe for bilateral cooperation:

Clean fuels and vehicle emissions control technologies: China will expeditiously implement its new low-sulfur standards and work toward adopting emission control technologies and enhancing vehicle emissions standards. The U.S. EPA will continue to implement its heavy-duty low-sulfur fuel and diesel standards and will provide technical support as appropriate for China’s domestic policies. Relevant agencies include China’s NDRC and Ministry of Environmental Protection, and the U.S. EPA.

What might US-China collaboration on clean fuels and vehicles focus on? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Filter-forcing emission standard design and implementation. Since 2010, every diesel truck sold in the United States has been equipped with a diesel particulate filter (DPF), which captures 99% of particles by number (including black carbon). These filters are enabled by the nationwide supply of ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD). Earlier this year, China made a major announcement that it would also supply ULSD nationwide by the end of 2017 (earlier in key regions). Implementing filter-forcing tailpipe emission standards in parallel will allow China to realize the enormous emissions reductions made possible by the future ULSD supply. Such standards would also drive innovation and modernizing of China’s heavy-duty vehicle industry, making it more globally competitive. The US EPA can support China’s MEP on test protocol experience, design and implementation issues, modeling the potential benefits and costs, and more.
  2. Compliance programs. Strong compliance is the key to realizing the gains targeted by strong standards. The US EPA’s compliance programs are among the most comprehensive in the entire world. Capacity-building programs for Chinese regulators covering vehicles and, especially, fuel quality compliance will help ensure that expected emissions reductions are achieved. Capacity building could focus on regulatory design and management as well as laboratory support testing and operations. Improved compliance by Chinese manufacturers will also benefit the US, in particular by helping ensure the compliance of engines exported from China to the US.
  3. In-use programs. Cleaning up the legacy “in-use” fleet is a key to short-term emissions reductions. As China develops programs targeting these vehicles (such as scrappage, retrofitting, inspection and maintenance, etc.), understanding US experience will be very important to designing and implementing effective programs. And cities, like Beijing, have proven that they can also play a critical role in emission control. Key opportunities for collaboration exist not only at the national level but also at the sub-national (e.g., state-province or city-city) level.

It’s exciting to see the US and China acknowledging, at the highest levels, that strengthening the environmental performance of China’s heavy-duty vehicles will deliver enormous benefits for both climate and air quality. It will be even more exciting to watch specific cooperative programs emerge in the coming months. And, most exciting, we’ll all be breathing a little easier as a result.