Emissions rules in other countries could help keep EPA regs in place

January 17, 2017

On Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency stunned many observers by finalizing emissions standards* for new cars through the year 2025. While environmental groups praised the ruling--which came more than a year before it was due--automakers grumbled that the new benchmarks would force companies to make smaller, gas-sipping vehicles that consumers aren't interested in right now.

The real question on everyone's mind, though, is whether the incoming Trump administration can undo the EPA's ruling. The number of theories on that question rivals the number of diesels equipped with Volkswagen's emissions-test-cheating software, but here's something that few of those opinions consider: other countries could force automakers to make vehicles cleaner, even if the EPA decision falls apart.

Insular politics vs. the globalized marketplace

It's true that automakers develop different vehicles for different markets, but many of the changes car companies make in shifting from one country to another are cosmetic. Under the hood, it's become fairly common practice for platforms and powertrains to bridge national borders--especially since the Great Recession.

And so, when countries in Asia and Europe demand that cars sold there meet strict emissions rules, the technology underpinning those vehicles often gets spread around. If a nation like China--which is working hard to clean up its air and shift to renewable energy sources--demands that vehicles hit certain high targets, it doesn't matter if the EPA's rules stand or not: automakers will have to meet those benchmarks. 

That doesn't necessarily mean that those cleaner vehicles will be sold in the U.S. as-is, but the technology will exist. At some point, economies of scale will kick in, and automakers will include the technology across their lineups, no matter the country.

Good CARB or bad CARB?

And let's not forget California, which is, for the purposes of this discussion, a bit like its own country. Automakers have to contend with stricter regulations in California, set by the California Air Resources Board. Rather than make vehicles specifically for California and different models for the other 49 states, many car companies (though not all) ensure that their lineups meet California rules.

So, even if the EPA rules are struck down, California could continue holding automakers to high standards, eventually forcing the issue nationwide. 

The road ahead

The incoming administration hasn't had much to say about the specifics of the EPA's ruling. However, we know that Trump himself is skeptical of climate change, a major factor in the EPA's decision, and his pick for EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, feels the same way. Also, neither looks kindly on regulation.

Thus, it would be a little surprising if the administration didn't make some effort to roll back or otherwise mitigate Friday's decision, which arrived 15 months ahead of the official deadline and was almost certainly an effort by current EPA Administrator, Gina McCarthy, to lock in the rules while Obama was still in office.

However, as our colleagues at Green Car Reports note, undoing EPA regulations is more complicated than undoing a law like, say, the Affordable Care Act. The former requires a lengthy review process, a great deal of public comment, and lots of persuasive, science-based arguments.

Can Trump, Pruitt, and their allies manage that? As the saying goes, where there's a will, there's almost certainly a way. But the bigger question may be, how does the Trump team want to spend its political capital before the honeymoon period with legislators and the public wears off?

* Be sure to click through on that article, which explains that the EPA's ruling only affects emissions standards, not Corporate Average Fuel Economy, which is set separately by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. High emissions standards would imply equally high fuel economy standards--after all, auto emissions and fuel efficiency have a very direct relationship. However, we haven't seen any official sign that NHTSA is planning to finalize CAFE rules for 2025 before Trump's swearing-in on Friday.

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