Automakers criticize EPA plan for emissions limits, while environmentalists argue it is insufficient.

Automakers criticize EPA plan for emissions limits, while environmentalists argue it is insufficient.

The EPA’s Proposal to Reduce Vehicle Emissions: Is it Enough?


In April, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced new strict emissions limits, aiming to tackle climate change amidst soaring temperatures, wildfires, and intense storms worldwide. The EPA’s proposal suggests that the automotive industry could comply with the limits if 67% of new-vehicle sales are electric by 2032. However, the auto industry deems this target unrealistic. Nonetheless, the EPA’s new rule does not mandate automakers to directly increase electric vehicle (EV) sales; rather, it sets emissions limits and allows automakers to choose their own strategies to meet them.

Even if the industry manages to boost EV sales to the level recommended by the EPA, the reduction in pollution may fall short of the agency’s expectations. The Associated Press estimates that over 200 million vehicles, or nearly 80% of vehicles being driven in the U.S., will still rely on gasoline or diesel fuel. This raises concerns among environmental groups who argue that more needs to be done to combat climate change.

Dan Becker, director of the safe climate transport campaign at the Center for Biological Diversity, points to surging temperatures and the smoke from Canadian wildfires that worsened air quality in parts of the U.S. this summer. Becker insists that drastic emission reductions are necessary to combat climate change. Carbon dioxide and methane levels in the atmosphere continue to rise, and July is predicted to be the hottest month on record. To limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, scientists emphasized the urgent need to cut nearly two-thirds of carbon emissions by 2035. While the EPA’s proposal is seen as a good start, it falls short of aligning with the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement.

The International Council on Clean Transportation asserts that reaching the Paris Agreement’s targets would require 67% of new electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles sold by 2030. Meanwhile, the EPA’s projection falls slightly below at 60%. The council further calculated that to reach the Paris goals, carbon dioxide pollution from passenger vehicles needs to decrease to 57 grams per mile by 2030. In contrast, the EPA’s preferred regulation aims for 102 grams per mile by 2030 and 82 grams per mile by 2032. Additionally, the EPA’s preferred regulation lacks specific reductions for gas vehicles, although potential fuel economy standards proposed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration could address this gap.

Despite the concerns raised by environmental groups, the EPA contends that its proposal will yield significant reductions in pollution. The agency estimates a 47% decrease in passenger-vehicle carbon dioxide emissions by 2055, by which time most gas-powered vehicles are expected to be phased out. Transportation, as the biggest source of pollution in the U.S., contributes roughly 29% of heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions. Among transportation sources, passenger vehicles account for 58% of this sector’s greenhouse gas pollution. The EPA also proposes substantial reductions from other emission sources, including heavy trucks, electric power plants, and the oil and gas industry.

According to sales projections by the EPA and industry analysts, Americans are likely to purchase around 60 million EVs from 2022 through model year 2032. Considering the current number of 284 million passenger vehicles on U.S. roads, this pace indicates that only approximately 22% of vehicles would be electric in nine years. Two million EVs are currently in use, and vehicles typically remain on the roads for an average of 12.5 years. Nevertheless, Dave Cooke, a senior vehicles analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, suggests that even with slow vehicle turnover, the EPA’s proposal is an important step toward achieving a zero-carbon transportation system by 2050. Cooke points out that power plants fueling EVs will transition to renewable energy sources like wind and solar, further bolstering the environmental benefits.

The EPA’s proposal, however, faces opposition from the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a trade group representing companies like General Motors, Ford, and Toyota. They argue that the EPA’s standards are neither reasonable nor achievable within the given timeframe. The alliance believes that the agency underestimates the cost and challenges of producing EV batteries, including shortages of critical minerals required, which are also used in laptops, cellphones, and other devices. Furthermore, limitations in the charging network, particularly for long-distance travel and apartment residents, pose additional obstacles. The alliance suggests that automakers should prioritize resources toward producing EVs rather than developing more fuel-efficient technology for gas-powered engines.

Amidst the ongoing debates, studies conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) highlight the advantages of electric vehicles in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Depending on the source of electricity, EVs deliver a 30% to 50% reduction in emissions compared to traditional combustion vehicles. Jessika Trancik, an MIT professor of energy systems, emphasizes that even after considering the emissions associated with battery metal mining, EVs remain cleaner over their lifetimes. Trancik predicts that as EV sales accelerate, more people will opt for electric vehicles, potentially surpassing the EPA’s projections. She notes that EV sales have been growing rapidly in many other countries, indicating exponential growth as acceptance and infrastructure improve.

While the EPA’s proposal is seen as a positive step toward cleaner transportation, many environmental advocates, scientific experts, and industry groups argue that it falls short of what is needed to adequately tackle climate change. The agency is currently considering feedback from various stakeholders before finalizing its regulation in March 2024. As the discussions continue, the urgency to find effective solutions to combat climate change and transition towards sustainable transportation remains a focal point for regulators, automakers, and environmental organizations alike.