Friday, January 22, 2021

Personal trucks widen emissions gap over EVs

Excess carbon dioxide emissions from the rising popularity of light trucks, such as the Ram pickup, swamp many times over the potential carbon savings from increased sales of EVs, such as the Tesla Model 3, to date.  

Last fall, I posted an analysis showing that, even as electric vehicle sales had grown significantly over the past several years, the broader market shift to personal trucks (mainly SUVs and pickups) has overwhelmed the potential CO2 reductions from EV use by more than a factor of four. With the new EPA data now released, this ratio has increased to a factor of 5.6, as shown in the chart below. 

EPA issued its latest Automotive Trends report in early January. It provides final data for model year 2019, the most recent annual period for which complete official data are available on the sales, CO2 emission rates and fuel economy performance of new light-duty vehicles, including cars, SUVs, pickups, minivans and other vehicles up to 8,500 pounds gross vehicle weight. 

The EPA report documents how fleetwide carbon-cutting progress has stalled, with average CO2 emission rates becoming somewhat higher in model year 2019 than they were in 2018. The agency notes that, even though nearly all vehicle types have record low CO2 emission rates, the continuing shift away from cars and towards SUVs and pickups has offset the benefit of such vehicle engineering improvements. 

Examining market trends since 2012, which was a significant year for key EV introductions, sales of plug-in cars were up sixfold by 2019. In isolation, that gain would have cut new fleet average CO2 emission rates by 4.7 grams per mile (g/mi). This potential benefit is shown as the light green bar in the figure below. 

Also over the 2012-2019 period, average new light truck fuel economy improved from 19.3 to 22.0 miles per gallon (mpg). Again in isolation, that improvement corresponds to a 12 percent reduction in average new light truck CO2 emission rates. However, model year 2019 light trucks emit an average of 37 percent more CO2 per mile than vehicles classified as cars. Light truck market share rose by 20 percentage points, from 36 percent to 56 percent, over 2012-2019. 

The net effect is that new fleet CO2 emissions averaged 26.1 g/mi higher than they would be without the increased market share of personal light trucks. That's shown as the pink bar in the figure above. Comparing this 26.1 g/mi emission increase to the potential 4.7 g/mi CO2 decrease estimated for EVs yields the factor of 5.6 disparity noted above. (See the earlier post for further details on the assumptions for this analysis.)

In other words, EV sales would have to increase more than five fold just to counteract the carbon reduction deficit that results from the combination of lenient regulation and rising market share for light trucks. 

One legacy of the Trump Administration is that clean car standards (the coordinated national program of light-duty vehicle CAFE standards and GHG emission standards) are now slated to tighten only trivially over the next five years. Even though EVs are an important carbon-cutting technology, much more stringent clean car standards are the real priority for putting the U.S. automobile fleet on track for climate protection. 

Finally, note that this analysis based on EPA's public data doesn't tell the whole story. The picture would be even worse if we accounted for the largest and most luxurious personal trucks, such as the Chevy Silverado and GM Sierra 2500, Ford F-250 and Ram 2500 models, traditionally called 3/4 ton pickups, as well as 1-ton pickups. 

These so-called work trucks are not meaningfully regulated, at least as far as environmental integrity is concerned, and even escape fuel economy and GHG emission labeling requirements. Because EPA does not report their sales and CO2 emission rates, data are not publicly available for estimating their effect on fleetwide emissions. But the popularity of such huge personal vehicles has grown, and so accounting for their impact would mean that the potential benefits of EVs are overwhelmed even more by the broader market trend toward ever more size, muscle and luxury. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

GM touts innovation while weakening regulation

My opinion piece published in The Detroit News points out the inconsistency of how some automakers have advocated for weaker fuel economy and GHG emission standards even as they promote their technology innovations. Taking General Motors' recent public statements as an example, it reminds readers that what ultimately matters for reducing emissions is the stringency of the regulations that apply across the entire vehicle fleet. 

Monday, October 19, 2020

Light trucks overwhelm EVs' carbon-cutting benefits to date

Electric vehicle sales have grown rapidly over the past several years. In 2012, only about 53,000 EVs were sold in the United States, counting both battery electric and plug-in hybrid models. By 2018, the annual tally of new EVs sold in the United States reached 361,000. It then tapered to 327,000 in 2019, the last full year of data before the 2020 pandemic. The vast majority of EVs are Teslas, with the big jump in 2018 due to the introduction of the Tesla Model 3. With overall light vehicle sales on the order of 17 million per year (pre-pandemic), EVs comprised about 2% of the U.S. market as of 2019.

Although they increased over six fold in six years (2012-18), EV sales remain lower than was expected a decade ago when gasoline prices were still quite high after the marked oil price rise of the 2000s. But that was before new petroleum supplies came online, including domestic oil from fracking as well as expanding deep ocean oil production and other global supply-side advances. Once pump prices moderated and the economy recovered, the market began shifting back to SUVs and pickups. Most such light trucks are held to GHG emission standards less stringent than those for vehicles classified as passenger cars, such as sedans and small, front-wheel drive SUVs.

EPA's annual Automotive Trends report characterizes new vehicle CO2 emission rates, providing data that can be used to assess how market trends affect overall fleet average emissions. EVs can clearly cut emissions, but how does the potential CO2 decrease due to higher EV sales compare to the CO2 increase due to the shift back to light trucks?

Friday, July 17, 2020

A missing link in green car marketing

One of the reasons why automakers have advocated weaker fuel economy and greenhouse gas (GHG) emission standards is that lower-than-expected fuel prices have lessened consumer interest in higher fuel economy. Although insufficient consumer interest relative to environmental need is the main reason why regulations are needed, lack of consumer interest is a legitimate concern. The challenge is quite real when the market is pulling one way while regulations are pulling another.

Nevertheless, environmental need -- and indeed policy-fostering public sentiment to address global warming -- does not go down when pump prices fall.

It is now well recognized that, to advance electric vehicles, extensive social marketing efforts are needed in addition to incentives, regulations and investments in charging infrastructure. But EVs are a slow slog in terms of market gains and, for cost and convenience reasons, likely to remain so for some time. For at least the next decade, EV promotion is poorly leveraged for reducing emissions at meaningful scales.

Significant emission reductions require fleet-wide gains in fuel economy. Climate concerns dictate that such gains be much greater than those to be seen under the near-flatlining of CAFE standards recently done at the industry's behest.

In spite of this need, no comparable social marketing effort is being directed to encourage consumers to choose more fuel-efficient vehicles whatever the market segment. This void is a missing link in the overall effort to reduce auto sector GHG emissions.

A large number of consumers do have environmental concerns, a fact borne out by numerous surveys in recent years. For example, the University of Michigan Energy Survey found that, since fuel prices fell several years ago, Americans are more concerned about the environmental impact of energy than they are about its cost. But little is being done to tap this sentiment when it comes to car shopping.

In a piece for Automotive News two years ago, I asked "Why aren't automakers connecting better with green-minded consumers?" That question is even more salient today.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Earth Day and auto efficiency

On Monday March 9, 2020, just before the coronavirus lockdown, I hosted a pre-Earth-Day teach-in on auto efficiency. It was part of the commererative week of action that the University of Michigan had planned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970. 

In 1970, awareness of the need to far better protect the environment was growing, triggered by the many forms of out-of-control pollution afflicting communities across the country and across the world. Automobile pollution was one big part of huge environmental problems overall. At the time, the focus was on smog-causing tailpipe emissions, which were especially bad in Los Angeles while worsening all around the country and indeed throughout the world. 

In response to the growing public pressure, Congress passed the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970. That landmark law was signed by President Richard Nixon and established the first truly stringent nationwide motor vehicle emission control regulations. Those standards fully took effect in 1975 and were tight enough to require the use of catalytic converters on nearly all new cars. Successive rounds of regulation led to the far cleaner vehicles we have on the road today. 

Today's challenge is global warming, caused by excess emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Transportation is the largest source of U.S. CO2 emissions, and automobiles -- including ever-popular pickups and SUVs as well as cars and minivans -- are the largest part of the sector. Improving auto efficiency is therefore as crucial now as cleaning up conventional tailpipe pollution was a generation ago. 

This event discussed the current challenges for auto efficiency improvement. It reviewed where things stand in terms of autos and CO2, describing the progress on fuel economy and GHG emission standards made under the Obama Administration, the Trump Administration's effort to weaken the regulations and why most automakers wanted weaker standards, as well as public understanding of the issue. The teach-in featured retired EPA executive Chet France, Brett Smith of the Center for Automotive Research and notable environmental journalist Julie Halpert along with myself. 


Monday, February 18, 2019

Considering petroleum's grip on mobility

World petroleum consumption by region

Oil has sustained its energy dominance largely due to its convenience for supplying transportation fuels. Petroleum is largest source of CO2 emissions in the United States and second largest globally. Addressing this part of the climate problem means confronting both the market factors and market actors that determine petroleum supply and demand. 
My recent discussion paper examines this intersection of transportation, oil and climate. It traces recent trends affecting petroleum supply and demand, providing a perspective on the industry's interests and how the sector might be affected by potential demand disruptions due to policy changes and innovations in mobility systems. The pertinent aspects of energy policy reflect an ever-evolving political process that attempts to balance competing forces, including the oil industry's desire to maximize income and minimize costs, popular pressures to keep prices low, public sector needs for tax revenue and environmental concerns
These forces are now amplified by the pace of innovation. Impacts were seen first on the supply side through developments such as fracking. Next up are changes on the demand side, including new mobility options such as ridehailing, vehicle electrification and rising levels of vehicle automation. Although it is unclear whether such changes will be evolutionary or revolutionary, their net long-run effect is likely to be increased demand for mobility. Policies to address the climate concern seek to decouple transportation from oil, creating a petroleum demand destruction risk that the industry can be expected to resist.
Read the full analysis at:
DeCicco, J.M. 2019. Market Factors Related to Transportation, Oil and Climate. Discussion Paper. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Energy Institute. January.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Can the Trump administration pull off a clean car deal after all?

Regulations have long been a bone of contention between automakers and green groups, with policymakers caught in the middle. The disagreements have grown sharper than ever over the past two years, culminating in an August proposal from the Trump administration. That plan detailed a preferred option of freezing car and light truck Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) and greenhouse gas (GHG) emission standards after 2020.

In response -- and they were indeed prepared for this worst-case scenario -- the State of California and its allies have girded for legal battle. They filled the docket with comments and extensive supporting analysis designed to fight the administration's crippled standards in court. On the other side, automakers -- who had prompted the administration to revise the regulations -- hailed the Trump agencies regulatory reform process even though they said it weakened the rules even more than they wanted. At that juncture, it seemed like years of litigation might be inevitable.

Nevertheless, a look at the formal comments filed reveals the makings of a compromise peeking through the otherwise disparate views. Recent news stories report that serious negotiations between California and the Trump administration seem to be underway. My recent Axios piece muses about how a compromise on car standards could be in sight.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Pondering the future of the car with the planet in mind

Historical vehicles on display at General Motors Factory One (left to right): Flint Road Cart (1886),
Buick Model C (1905) and Chevrolet Classic Six (1913)
  [photo: Jason Robinson, courtesy of General Motors]
This year, the Society of Environmental Journalists' (SEJ) Annual Conference was held in Flint, Michigan. The city has been in the news recently because of its toxic, lead-contaminated tap water, a public health crisis brought on by negligence and indifference at all levels of government. Clean water was a major theme of the event, which included moving presentations by members of the community, activists and researchers involved in the crisis.

Historically, however, Flint is one of the cities that gave birth to the automobile. William Durant, a key co-founder of General Motors, and his partner Josiah Dort opened a factory for making horse-drawn carriages there in 1886. That building subsequently became an early factory for Durant's car company before falling into disuse in 1924. Five years ago, General Motors purchased the building and named it Factory One, turning the refurbished structure into a museum and event space.

This location served as a fitting venue for an evening plenary on the Future of Cars held on October 3, 2018, the first day of the SEJ conference. Moderated by Jim Motavalli, the panel included Michelle Krebs, a leading automotive analyst, Mike Ableson, a GM vice president involved in the company's electric vehicle efforts, and myself.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Reconsidering bioenergy

Accelerated restoration in progress at the Malheur National Forest, Oregon  [photo: U.S. Forest Service] 

Protecting the Earth's climate takes on greater urgency every day. The vast majority of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other climate-wrecking greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions comes from the unmitigated use of fossil fuels. But that doesn't mean that every form of alternative energy is helpful for the planet. Case in point: bioenergy, such as liquid biofuels to replace oil or forest products to replace coal.

Indeed, using biomass for energy at large scales does not belong on the short list of actions to take for climate protection. This is the conclusion of a commentary by Bill Schlesinger and myself just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Given the real-world limitations of not only technology but also land-use governance, we argue that the priority policymakers have given to promoting bioenergy is profoundly misplaced.