08/02/2019

Why Car Companies Set Tougher Emission Standards For Themselves

7:16 minutes

cars wait in traffic on a highway, with smoggy air in the background
Traffic at the approach to the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge, California. Credit: Aaron Kohr, via Shutterstock

After years of decline, U.S. carbon emissions are on the rise again—and President Trump is still committed to rolling back Obama-era car emissions regulations. By fixing fuel economy standards at 37 miles per gallon, Trump Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency has given automakers a huge amount of flexibility to scale back their efforts at designing more fuel efficient vehicles. 

But now, even the auto industry is saying it’s too much. This week, four car manufacturers struck a stricter deal with the state of California. Umair Irfan, staff writer for Vox, joins Ira to discuss what prompted them to reject the EPA’s proposal. Plus, how activists like Greta Thunberg and some scientists are encouraging people to fly less, and more headlines in this week’s News Roundup.

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Segment Guests

Umair Irfan

Umair Irfan is a staff writer for Vox, based in Washington, DC.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, the surprising similarities between birdsong and human speech. But first, after years of decline, US carbon emissions are on the rise again. And yet, President Trump is attempting to roll back Obama-era car emissions regulations. The EPA has announced it’s fixing fuel economy standards at 37 miles per gallon, giving automakers a huge opportunity to scale back their efforts at designing more fuel efficiency vehicles. 

But guess what? Even car makers say the rollback is too much. So this week, four car makers struck their own deal with the state of California. Here to tell us why they did this, as well as other short subjects in science, is Umair Irfan, staff writer for Vox. Welcome back. 

UMAIR IRFAN: Hi, Ira. 

IRA FLATOW: So why did these companies make their own deal directly with the state? Why not follow the new more lax rules set by the EPA? 

UMAIR IRFAN: It’s kind of a long story. But in short, California is one of the largest vehicle markets in the country. And they historically have had an exemption from the Clean Air Act to set their own fuel economy and emissions rules. Right now, most of the rules are pretty uniform across the country. But because the EPA wants to relax these rules and California wants to keep them in place, automakers were worried that they would suddenly have to design cars for two different sets of standards. And so these four companies– Ford, Honda, BMW, and Volkswagen– decided that they wanted to preempt this and strike their own deal that would keep them compliant with California and the federal government. 

IRA FLATOW: So how does this compare with the Obama-era rules and regulations? 

UMAIR IRFAN: The Obama rules that were set out in 2012, they set a benchmark of roughly getting to 54.5 miles per gallon across a company’s car fleet by 2025. They gave the car companies a few different ways to comply with this, as well, including selling electric cars. But car companies were saying that they weren’t selling enough of these EVs or these more fuel-efficient vehicles. Americans tend to prefer larger cars, and so they wanted a little bit more flexibility to do that. And this California deal gives them that. The benchmark year is now 2026 instead of 2025. And the target is 51 miles per gallon rather than 54, which is still stronger than what the EPA wants to roll back to. 

IRA FLATOW: Hm. So you get a little bit of something. I mean, you encourage electric cars, and you still keep a little bit of those standards. 

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, that’s right. And part of the mechanism here is that this deal is voluntary, but California is promising these car companies that if a future administration decides to ramp up fuel economy standards, they’ll still hold them to this exact deal. And so that’s a little bit of an added incentive. 

IRA FLATOW: And of course, where California goes, maybe the rest of the car makers will follow. 

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah. A few of them have already said that they’re looking at this deal, and they’re considering it. And automakers, like General Motors, have said that they are betting on an all-electric future. So it’s just a matter of time before they make the shift themselves. 

IRA FLATOW: All right. And speaking of emissions, teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg announced this week that she will be traveling to New York this fall for the UN Summit by boat. 

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, that’s right. A philanthropist offered her a spot on this 18-meter sailing yacht. And the trip is expected to take two weeks, and she’s going to be going from Europe to the UN Climate Summit. And Greta, you may recall, went on strike from school last year, protesting her governments inaction on climate change, and that has since spawned a global movement among youth. And she’s been walking the walk here, because she says that she won’t fly because it’s one of the most carbon intensive forms of travel, and hence the sailing across the ocean. 

IRA FLATOW: And they’ve actually coined a Swedish word for this, right? 

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah. The word is [SWEDISH], or flying shame. Sweden has somehow become the epicenter of this movement to reduce flying or people feeling guilty about flying. Aviation is only about 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but it’s poised to grow. And there are very few opportunities to limit those emissions, because there’s just not the technology there. And when you calculate your own personal footprint, for many people who do fly, it’s often the largest component of it. And so it’s a very important way that an individual can act to limit their impact on the climate. 

IRA FLATOW: Why is it so hard to build fuel-efficient airplanes? 

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, the challenge is that there’s really nothing that’s energy-dense as conventional aviation fuels. You want to pack a lot of energy into a small space when you’re traveling by aircraft, so you don’t have the luxury of having a much larger battery. The other issue is just that air travel, we haven’t really invested a lot in trying to make it cleaner, because governments, really, just haven’t had an incentive to do so. There are technologies that people are researching right now– electrification, hydrogen fuels, carbon-neutral biofuels. And there are also some offsetting mechanisms, as well. But the offsets sometimes don’t deliver, and the other technologies are in their infancy. So it’ll be a few years before they take off. 

IRA FLATOW: Do you think [SWEDISH] is going to attract attention? 

UMAIR IRFAN: I mean, it already has. In other countries, it’s taken off. A lot of other activists have also vowed not to fly. There’s also a group of activists that is planning to sail to the UN Climate Conference in Chile later this year. And yeah. It’s kind of mounting, particularly among climate scientists, who are also looking at their own work. 

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about the democratic debates that have happened. I make a point about saying two years ago, hardly any mention of climate change was made at the debates. But things have changed a bit, have they not? 

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah. Just about every candidate brought up climate change. And that’s not too surprising, given that polls show that primary voters consider climate change as one of their top tier issues, if not the number one issue. So every candidate has to have an answer on climate change. 

IRA FLATOW: And so what were some of the major programs that don’t exist yet? 

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, a lot of the candidates, they agree on the fundamentals– that the US has to decarbonise by about the middle of the century. But what I was surprised to hear, was a couple of candidates talking about some of the specific tactics they want. Particularly, John Delaney was talking about direct air capture of carbon dioxide, and Tim Ryan was talking about regenerative agriculture. Now, you may recall the IPCC report last year that said that we had to decarbonise by 2050. It also said that after that point, we need to pull CO2 out of the air. And so these are two technologies that get at that part of the problem. 

IRA FLATOW: And then agriculture is a huge possibility, isn’t it? 

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah. We devote a huge amount of land in the United States for growing crops, but also growing crops to feed to animals that we also end up eating. And the idea behind regenerative agriculture is that you could engineer the crops to store more carbon in the soil, or you could raise livestock in a way that encourages pasture land and plants to grow in a way that puts more carbon out of the air than goes in. 

IRA FLATOW: And what was the idea of the direct air capture of CO2? 

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s a little bit more straightforward. It’s more like you build a giant machine that scrubs CO2 from the air. There are actually some companies, right now, that are developing and have built some pilot scale plants. The issue right now is just making them more energy efficient, bringing the cost down, and then also coming up with a business model that can keep these companies going. 

IRA FLATOW: Before anything like that can happen, though, you’ve got to make it a topic of discussion, don’t you? 

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah. And yes, as you noted, we saw more discussion of climate change in the first democratic debate this season than in the entire 2016 election cycle combined. And so it’s definitely getting some attention, the question is if it’ll move the needle in terms of policy. 

IRA FLATOW: We will be watching. Umair, thank you for taking the time to be with us today. 

UMAIR IRFAN: Thanks for having me. 

IRA FLATOW: Umair Irfan is a staff writer for Vox.

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