Biden has already notched an environmental victory before even taking office

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Almost two weeks ago, General Motors (GM) CEO Mary Barra handed the Biden administration its first environmental victory — two months before the president-elect will officially be sworn in.

When Barra announced her company would drop its participation in a Trump administration lawsuit seeking to block California’s authority to set its own clean air standards, her surprisingly candid remarks left no doubt the decision was based on last month’s presidential election. She explicitly positioned GM as a partner with the incoming administration, assuring President-elect Joe Biden’s team that “the ambitious electrification goals of the president-elect, California, and General Motors are aligned, to address climate change by drastically reducing automobile emissions.” The Biden team went a step further, blasting the now lame duck “Trump administration’s efforts to erode American ingenuity and America’s defenses against the climate threat.”

The company’s abrupt reversal is welcome. But where does GM really stand on reducing greenhouse gases (GHG) from auto emissions? Perhaps Barra always thought green technology and GHG reductions were the right path forward, but didn’t feel it was politically safe until Trump was on his way out. After all, the Trump administration launched anti-trust lawsuits against four automakers siding with California opposing the administration’s environmental rollback, in an intimidation tactic to bully other automakers into joining its lawsuit against the state.

Fortunately, whatever automakers say in public, what matters most is where they put their money. GM never stopped investing in low-emission technology, and just four days before Barra’s comments, the company announced it would bring 30 electric vehicles to market by mid-decade — one of several investment commitments totaling $27 billion through 2025 toward a full-electric lineup. And perhaps that commitment has helped GM’s stock value, which is up some 20 percent year to date. 

Considering its substantial electric vehicle commitment, GM’s initial decision to side with Trump against clean air was disappointing and surprising. But they were not the only automaker to join with the administration, and Barra invited other automakers like Fiat Chrysler and Toyota (representing the third- and fourth-largest U.S. auto sales in 2019) to likewise abandon their participation in Trump’s anti-climate lawsuit. 

Immediately leaving the lawsuit makes sense for three reasons. One, companies like Toyota are aware that the market for clean cars is growing with or without the Trump administration, and have already accelerated their electric vehicle delivery schedules to meet global demand. Two, not every automaker joined the lawsuit. In 2019 Ford, Honda, BMW and VW broke with the Trump administration and cut a deal with California to produce cleaner cars. Later on Volvo also agreed to the California deal. Three, the Trump administration’s legal action against California will die as soon as Biden takes office. 

The incoming administration has signaled they will pursue economy-wide GHG reductions, providing a clear reason for Toyota and Fiat Chrysler to join GM in withdrawing from this litigation and committing to real clean car solutions. 

The Trump lawsuits were just part of the administration’s destructive attack on environmental protections, including the historic 2025 Obama car standards that required automakers to double the fuel efficiency and halve the GHG emissions of new cars and trucks by 2025. Though weakened, the Obama standards targeting 4.7 percent annual fuel efficiency improvement still provide a model of how automakers and the Biden administration can work productively. 

When writing their 2012-2025 GHG and fuel economy standards, the Obama administration followed the template California developed in setting its own GHG car standards. By working closely with automakers, unions, states and consumer and environmental groups, the Obama administration notched historic results — the first federal program that targeted GHGs — with the broad support of industry and all stakeholders.

Having GM back onboard paves the way for Biden to follow Obama’s approach, using the new template developed by California and the five automakers, to adopt a slightly less stringent standard of 3.7 percent annual fuel economy improvement from 2022-2026. The five automakers represented more than 60 percent of total U.S. auto sales in 2019, meaning potential industry opposition is fading into the rearview mirror. 

This process should take another page from Obama’s successful playbook to include all relevant stakeholders, auto manufacturers, union leaders, states and NGOs to build a long and ambitious standard to address climate change. Reestablishing ambitious standards will simultaneously cut emissions, create jobs and make the U.S. a global leader in the electric vehicle industry. 

Biden has promised to quickly rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change and spend $2 trillion to tackle climate. Transportation is America’s top source of GHGs with 28 percent of total emissions and must be central to any environmental agenda. 

Biden will take office with an ambitious transportation electrification proposal with significant infrastructure investments — installing 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations nationwide and a commitment to creating one million auto industry jobs. Biden’s climate plan also calls for public sector procurement to spur electric vehicle demand, funding to boost battery technology research, converting all of the country’s school buses to electric ones and supporting federal tax credits to help middle class buyers to purchase electric vehicles. 

But Biden will start at a disadvantage. The U.S. once led other major car markets in clean car technology, but has been falling further and further behind. While Trump was reversing U.S. climate policies, Europe and China were investing in stringent GHG reduction and fuel economy standards to grow their electric vehicle markets. The European Commission is even considering tightening its auto emissions limits from the current mark of about 92 miles-per-gallon equivalent — significantly higher than the Obama 54.5 MPG that was rolled back by the Trump administration — and an existing standard requiring about 35 to 40 percent electric vehicle new sales by 2030. Strong leadership like this can start closing the gap.

Biden’s aggressive climate plan will help accelerate a global race to electrify the transportation sector, create new jobs in a carbon-free society, and build a better tomorrow for our children and grandchildren. Unless they want to be left behind it’s time for Toyota, Fiat Chrysler and others to join GM, Ford, Honda, BMW and VW helping shape the future of innovative clean car standards. 

Margo Oge served as the director of EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality from 1994-2012 and is the author of “Driving the Future: Combatting Climate Change with Cleaner, Smarter Cars.”

Tags Automakers automakers lawsuit Biden climate plan carbon emissions Climate change climate policy Donald Trump Emission standards GM Greenhouse gas Greenhouse gas emissions Joe Biden Mary Barra Paris agreement Trump lawsuits

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