Pruitt's out. Now the EPA must stop the roll back of Obama's fuel efficiency standards 

  • The EPA says Obama-era fuel efficiency standards kill jobs and hurt businesses, but the opposite is true.
  • Cars of the future will be electric because they make engineering and economic sense and because they are necessary to avoid a climate catastrophe.
  • The Trump administration is marching in the wrong direction.
Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), speaks as U.S. President Donald Trump, left, listens during an announcement in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, June 1, 2017.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), speaks as U.S. President Donald Trump, left, listens during an announcement in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, June 1, 2017.

Amid mounting pressure and months of scandals, Scott Pruitt on Thursday resigned as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

His resignation is unlikely to change the direction the EPA is taking with regards to fuel efficiency standards, especially with Andrew Wheeler, a former coal-industry lobbyist, now at the helm.

Trump's EPA says the Obama-era standards, designed to reduce carbon emissions, will kill jobs and hurt businesses. But quite the opposite is true. And a more pristine environment enhances living standards by improving health and life expectancy and the ability to benefit from education. It also creates enriching recreational opportunities.

Tighter corporate average fuel efficiency (CAFE) standards will even provide an incentive to move toward cleaner technology, and, if implemented now, help contain climate change and save money. Stricter standards will also keep the U.S. auto industry globally competitive as countries around the world commit to eliminating gas-powered vehicles.

Fuel economy standards are particularly crucial today. As of last year, burning transport fuels became the main contributor to U.S. greenhouse gases.

"As the rest of the world marches forward, this administration is moving us in the opposite direction — downgrading not only the environment but our country’s status as the leading economic power."

In May, we discovered that Chinese CO2 emissions have resumed an upward trend largely because of the rapidly-growing use of cars burning gasoline.

Coal replacement technologies, such as wind, solar power and natural gas, have reduced our reliance on fossil fuels for electricity generation, leaving the automobile industry and the rest of the transportation sector to account for the lion’s share of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

The dangers of climate change, whether sea level rise or droughts and crop failures, make it imperative that we reduce auto emissions or pay a heavy price.

I estimate that climate change, left unfettered, could impose costs of at least $4 trillion on the U.S. in this century. We can avoid some of this waste of dollars simply by moving away from fossil fuels.

Now that wind and solar power are less expensive than gas and coal, and the cost of battery storage has dropped dramatically, my calculations show that switching from fossil fuels in electricity generation would save at least $10 billion dollars a year from now to 2050, and reduce climate change in the bargain.

Governments with mandates to replace cars burning fossil fuels by electric vehicles include Norway (by 2025), India (by 2030), the UK and France (by 2040). China, the world’s largest and fastest-growing auto market, has a similar timeline.

And yet as the rest of the world marches forward, this administration is moving us in the opposite direction — downgrading not only the environment but our country’s status as the leading economic power.

There is absolutely no economic justification for impeding efforts towards greater fuel efficiency. Instead, we have the opportunity to leverage a cluster of factors including the commercialization of electric vehicles, progress in battery technology, and growing consumer interest in clean vehicles to make it possible to imagine a real solution to the climate problem.

The U.S. government needs to stop obstructing the global competitiveness of our auto industry, and start changing direction now. Automobiles of the future – the near future – will be electric because they make engineering and economic sense and because this is necessary to avoid a climate catastrophe.

Geoffrey Heal is the Donald C. Waite III Professor of Social Enterprise and a Chazen Senior Scholar at Columbia Business School. His latest book, Endangered Economies – How the Neglect of Nature Threatens Our Prosperity, sets out the economic and business case for environmental conservation.

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