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Environmentalists Say Obama's Auto Plan Is A Start

President Obama's tougher new fuel efficiency standards bring industry, environmentalists and states together to start cutting greenhouse gas emissions from cars. But the reductions would represent only a drop in the bucket of what's needed to address global warming.

White House officials say the proposal would cut greenhouse gas emissions by about 900 million metric tons. That's the total reduction of pollution from the five model years of cars and trucks covered by the proposal.

"I like to call it a lasting and significant down payment on the work we have to do to address climate change emissions in our country," says Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson.

But she notes that even though the pollution reductions are big, they're dwarfed by the massive challenge of global warming. "This action alone — I don't want to mislead anyone — is not going to change global temperatures. Obviously, it is one step on a long road," Jackson says.

It's a long road that Stanford University climate scientist Ken Caldeira says we have to travel because we face possible grave irreversible damage from climate change, such as a rapid rise in sea level.

"These cuts are important as an act of political leadership, but these cuts in themselves will not produce any significant climate effect," Caldeira says.

A Few Bumps In The Road

But David Friedman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group, says the president's initiative should not be underestimated.

"U.S. cars and trucks produce more global warming pollution than the entire economy of almost every single nation in the world," Friedman says. "This plan would cut those emissions by 14 percent in 2020. I think that everyone would be impressed if India agreed to cutting their emissions by that amount."

Friedman, who used his own models to come up with these figures, says that's a cut compared with what emissions would be without the proposed standards. But he concedes that total greenhouse gas pollution from vehicles might not be any less 10 years from now because of more motorists on the road driving more miles.

Some experts say Obama's proposal would drive up the cost of new cars — by $1,300, according to the White House — and make people more likely to hold on to their old cars.

"Those older cars tend to be of lower fuel efficiency and significantly more polluting, so there's a counterproductive effect," says Robert Stavins, director of Harvard University's environmental economics program.

Stavins points to another shortcoming of the fuel economy standards. "Once you've bought the car, it doesn't provide an incentive to drive it any less," he says. "In fact, by increasing fuel efficiency, it actually provides an incentive to use the car more because it lowers the operating cost."

'It's One Step In The Process'

Still, Stavins says, the tougher requirements for automakers are important, especially when combined with other initiatives that are in the works.

"It's one step in the process. It's trivial if you compare it to what the effects would be of a nationwide comprehensive cap-and-trade system along the lines of what President Obama had proposed in his budget message," Stavins says.

In fact, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is currently drafting a sweeping bill that would cut greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2020 — from all sectors of the economy.

Stavins says the bill would force additional reductions in greenhouse gases from cars because it would make gasoline more expensive. That would give people an incentive to buy fuel efficient vehicles and deter them from driving so much.

Obama supports the House measure, but it faces a lot of political hurdles — and there is no guarantee it will reach his desk.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Shogren
Elizabeth Shogren is an NPR News Science Desk correspondent focused on covering environment and energy issues and news.