Catalyst Winter 2019
Then and Now

How UCS Helped Cut a Half Billion Tons of Carbon Emissions

By Elliott Negin

When UCS began working on transportation issues back in 1991, fuel economy standards were stuck in reverse. Congress hadn’t passed legislation to strengthen them since 1975. In 1985, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) under President Reagan lowered the standards for 1986, then did so again in 1987 and 1988. A few years later, when the Clinton administration tried to jump-start the process for raising fuel economy, Congress responded by blocking NHTSA from doing so.

Since then, thanks largely to UCS, those standards have zoomed forward, helping cars and trucks go farther on a gallon of gas, saving consumers billions of dollars, and slashing carbon emissions—until now, that is.

How Did We Pull It Off?

In 2003 UCS vehicle engineers designed a prototype for a SUV that used existing technologies to improve fuel economy, save consumers money, and increase driver safety—all while retaining vehicle size and performance. Since the report's release, automakers have incorporated many of these technologies across their fleets.
Image: Steve Stankiewicz

To get the job done, UCS went west: in 1992, our transportation team opened a satellite office in California. Because the Golden State began regulating air pollution before the federal government did, it has the unique authority to set and implement its own tailpipe emissions standards, and other states are allowed to follow its lead. So, over the next few years, the UCS team proposed a number of innovative ways for California to reduce tailpipe pollution and convinced the state to strengthen its low-emissions and zero-emissions vehicle standards.

Before long, our work on transportation issues began to pay off nationally. In 2003, we published Building a Better SUV: A Blueprint for Saving Lives, Money, and Gasoline as the centerpiece of a campaign to break through years of congressional gridlock. That report, coupled with other analyses, media education, public pressure, and Capitol Hill tutorials, led to a major victory in 2007 when Congress passed a landmark energy bill strengthening fuel economy for the first time in three decades. The bill boosted fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks to a fleetwide average of at least 35 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2020—nearly 10 mpg higher than the average at the time.

A Win-Win-Win

The Obama administration, guided by UCS analysis, set standards aimed at doubling car and light truck fuel efficiency by 2025. We are now fighting to prevent these standards from being weakened or overturned.
Photo: UCS

California also led the way by adopting the world’s first vehicle global warming emissions standard in 2004, once again informed by UCS technical analysis. And after the Obama administration took office, the UCS team really put the pedal to the metal. In 2009, UCS engineers published the design for a minivan that demonstrated the feasibility of meeting California’s global warming emissions standard.

That same year, President Obama took note of California’s action and announced the federal government’s first joint fuel economy and global warming emissions standards, boosting the fleetwide fuel economy of new vehicles sold in the United States to 34.1 mpg by model year 2016 and requiring automakers to reduce tailpipe carbon emissions by nearly 30 percent compared with the average emissions of new vehicles sold in 2009.

More successes followed. UCS analysis helped the Obama administration make history in 2011 when it set standards intended to nearly double car and light truck efficiency by 2025. By cutting US oil consumption nearly 1.5 billion barrels per day by 2030—or 23 billion gallons of gasoline annually—these standards would save drivers some $50 billion that year alone and reduce carbon emissions by more than 500 million tons—the equivalent of closing 136 typical coal-fired power plants.

“These standards are the culmination of two decades of blood, sweat, and tears,” says Michelle Robinson, who joined UCS in 1992 and has directed our Clean Vehicles program since 2003. “Our analyses, coalition leadership, media education, and decisionmaker engagement were all instrumental in pushing the standards across the finish line.”

Roadblock Ahead

The future of this signature UCS accomplishment, however, is now in jeopardy. The Trump administration plans to freeze fuel economy requirements at the 2020 model year level, a change that would needlessly increase US fuel consumption by nearly a million barrels of oil per day by 2040. The administration has also threatened to eliminate California’s ability to set its own tailpipe standards.

California, the 14 states that follow its lead, and a handful of other states have pushed back. The same day the administration made its announcement, 19 state attorneys general joined a lawsuit with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who declared that his state would “use every legal tool at its disposal to defend today’s national standards and reaffirm the facts and science behind them.”

UCS will continue to provide indisputable facts and science to, as former California Governor Jerry Brown put it, “fight this stupidity in every conceivable way possible.”

“We have shown time and time again that the auto industry can meet the standards,” says Robinson. “Given that the transportation sector is now the biggest source of US carbon emissions, we simply can’t afford to let the Trump administration put the country back in reverse.”