Why auto-emission rules are good for the economy

President Obama's blueprint for cutting greenhouse gas emissions in the United States has brought forth claims and counterclaims all too predictable in the political free-for-all that passes for governance today.

2015 Toyota Prius
Source: Toyota Motors
2015 Toyota Prius

According to presidential adviser Brian Deese, the plan, which was submitted in late March to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, would "build on the historic progress we've already made to cut carbon pollution and protect public health by reducing emissions 26–28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025."

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Sen. James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma and the Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, challenged the action on economic grounds. "As the Obama administration continues to pursue a radical agenda on global warming, it's clear Americans are beginning to question if the cost of billions of dollars to our economy and tens of thousands of lost job opportunities is really worth it for potentially no gain," Inhofe said in a statement.

Which side is right? Well, one of the three legs of the president's blueprint is greenhouse-gas emissions reduction from passengers vehicles, and there the record is very clear: Sensibly phased-in controls are good for the environment.

Last year was the best for automakers in a decade: Americans bought 16.5 million new cars—despite car companies like General Motors being plagued by massive recall issues. Even more exciting is that all these cars and trucks hit the roads without accelerating greenhouse-gas emissions. How? Automakers' investment in fuel economy has driven innovation across all segments.

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Chevrolet, for example, had big success with two of its smaller, high-efficiency vehicles, the Spark and the Sonic. Ford experienced record sales with the efficient Fusion, which offers a hybrid version.

The successes with high-efficiency models weren't limited to compacts. Americans still bought plenty of trucks and SUVs. But even within those segments, some of the top sellers featured much better mileage than in previous years. The redesigned Jeep Cherokee, for example, sold a record 180,000 in its first full year. This new model also gets more than 40 percent higher fuel economy than the vehicle it replaced, the 2012 Jeep Liberty.

This innovation didn't happen due solely to market forces. Automakers have been driven to innovate not just to satisfy an increased consumer demand for fuel efficient vehicles, but also to meet the emissions and fuel-economy targets set by the 2012 Light-Duty Vehicle Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards, the first national greenhouse-gas regulation.

The targets established by these regulations sound ambitious: Industry had to meet tiered standards beginning in 2012 that would lead to new cars getting 54.5 mpg by 2025, reducing carbon emission by 6 billion metric tons. Projections are that this will help save the driver $8,000 at the pump and the nation $1.7 trillion.

But here's the big surprise: Automakers have had no trouble meeting these goals so far. In 2013, the industry averaged a record high fuel economy of 24.1mpg, 1.4 mpg higher than the regulations require. Today, there are three times more 30mpg models on the road than 5 years ago.

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Instead of fighting the future tooth and nail, auto engineers have unleashed a wave of green innovation. They are developing smaller, turbocharged engines and building lighter vehicles with aluminum, high-strength steel and composites. Advanced transmissions and stop-start technology that put engine sin sleep mode at traffic lights also improve efficiency. Even something as simple as tires can help improve mileage.

These investments in innovation also mean jobs. The Blue-Green Alliance of unions and environmental organizations estimated that by 2020, the greenhouse-gas standards will help add 150,000 manufacturing jobs. Alcoa is investing some $300 million in order to meet automakers' demand for lightweight materials. General Motors and Tesla have announced nearly 8,500 jobs in three states, all focused on advanced battery research—technology essential to expanding the electric vehicle market.

As a result of this clean-car revolution, the cars of tomorrow will be much changed from what we've come to expect. Even traditional automakers like BMW are making bold predictions about the transformation of personal transportation. In just 25 years, BMW predicts that virtually every car will have an alternative powertrain. And with the advent of driverless and shared cars, we could see even further improvements in greenhouse-gas reductions.

In short, when it comes to passenger vehicles, working toward a greener, more fuel-efficient future is precisely what Sen. Inhofe should be doing. He said so himself.

Commentary by Margo T Oge, former director of the Office of Transportation Air Quality at the US EPA and author of the book, "Driving the Future: Combating Climate Change with Cleaner, Smarter Cars."