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.