Cars, CAFE and climate

For nearly 30 years, Washington has witnessed a stalemate over fuel-economy standards for cars and light trucks. In this passion play, environmental and energy-security advocates call for higher standards, and automakers block them, arguing jobs and foreign competition. Year after year each side makes the same speeches and the goals of both sides slip further away. America’s oil dependence and global-warming pollution grow, and domestic automakers lose market share.

But tomorrow could mark a turning point in this debate — and in the broader, pressing deliberations over U.S. climate policy — when leading automakers will appear before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce as Congress prepares to put pen to paper on national climate legislation.

The automakers’ appearance is an opportunity to fulfill Chairman John Dingell’s (D-Mich.) desire to move past the old debates and find creative new solutions for both the environment and the auto industry. It’s time to recognize that there is more than one way to achieve the goals we all share — less oil dependence, less global-warming pollution, and a healthy domestic car industry.

An answer begins with the recognition that the solution is not found in car technology alone. A true solution must involve new fuels and sustained consumer interest in cleaner cars in addition to automotive engineering. It must involve sharing the burden of emissions reductions among the set of options available.

That’s not to say that there isn’t great potential for existing technologies, properly applied, to cut fuel consumption. Lighter vehicles and components (with no loss in strength and safety), ongoing improvement of gasoline engines and transmissions, a new generation of diesel engines, and hybrid drivetrains can collectively combine to cut fuel use in half, given ample lead time and the right policies.

But what cars really need is a context, a broader policy framework in which measures to spur higher fuel economy make sense as part of a shared strategy for tackling climate change. As Dingell himself has noted, “A system to regulate fuel economy, without considering the nature of the fuel or the level of greenhouse gasses it emits, may be inadequate.”

The best way to do that is through a national cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. Under that framework, which will put a premium on all actions that will reduce carbon emissions, we can create demand for innovations based on a balanced, cost-effective combination of higher fuel economy and low-carbon fuels, such as homegrown low-carbon biofuels. Just as importantly, cars won’t be singled out for change beyond what other sectors contribute to emissions reductions, and the country won’t have to squander tax dollars on costly, winner-picking technology subsidies. It’s a flexible, centrist approach that will allow private industry to find the best way to cut the pollution, while guaranteeing the cuts get made.

This approach also has the potential to solve some other pressing national challenges. By spurring investment in low-carbon technologies and fuels, it will help reduce America’s dangerous dependence on foreign oil and boost our global economic competitiveness.
A national climate policy that includes cars will provide real progress on energy security. The policies enacted to date in the name of energy independence aren’t truly reducing America’s oil dependence. Transportation energy policy needs the unambiguous guidance that only a carbon cap can provide. With that guidance we can harness both new technologies and new fuels to cut automotive oil use and carbon emissions in half within a generation.

An end to the logjam over CAFE is well within Congress’s reach for the first time since 1975. The solution can be a new national policy that focuses on cars as a piece of the broader climate puzzle, and all sides can walk away a winner.

DeCicco is a senior fellow in the Automotive Strategies unit at Environmental Defense, a nonprofit group with offices in Washington and New York.