Time to reinstate our strongest tool against climate change

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The Trump administration rolled back more than a hundred environmental protections over its four years in office. One of the most consequential was weakening the clean car standards established in 2012, which were widely seen as our nation’s strongest tool to combat the climate crisis. 

Transportation remains the top source of greenhouse gas emissions in America, something millions of us can see every day merely walking down the street. We can actually see the plumes of pollution emitting from cars as they drive through our neighborhoods, especially in the communities of color and low-income communities divided by highways.

Perhaps that’s why it’s no surprise that the Trump administration severely weakened the standards we have to safeguard our health from this problem continuing to worsen. In one fell swoop, former President Trump practically eviscerated pollution controls for cars and trucks, and revoked the California waiver that enabled 15 states and Washington, D.C. to set stronger rules to protect their residents from the pollution spewing out of tailpipes.  

But Trump didn’t go at this alone. Many of the very same auto manufacturers that stood united in support of Obama’s clean car standards a decade ago turned their backs on the American people and sided with the Trump administration in its climate attacks. 

In a society heavily dependent on cars that run on fossil fuels, the Trump administration’s attacks dealt a blow to every single person — driver or not — in this nation. As a result, we breathe more polluted air, putting us at greater risk of asthma, heart disease and even premature death. Our climate is heating up faster than it would have without Trump’s rollbacks, leaving us even less time to avert catastrophic climate change.  

We’re heartened to see the Biden administration is steering the country on the right path again. It’s taking an important step toward tackling the climate crisis and air pollution by proposing to regrant states the authority to adopt California’s strong clean car standards. Once again, states will have a crucial tool to protect 118 million of us — upwards of 40 percent of the U.S. population — from vehicle pollutants that can damage our health. With the California standards reinstated, we are back on the track to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 650 million tons over the next 15 years — or more, since several states are poised to adopt new low- and zero-emission car standards. 

But reinstating the Clean Air Act waiver is only a first step toward cutting air pollution in the most impacted communities and radically reducing transportation’s carbon footprint. We need the Biden administration to scrap Trump’s woefully inadequate national fuel efficiency standards and implement much stronger protections. And we have no time to lose. The clock is ticking on the action required to prevent catastrophic climate change, and the Trump administration wasted four of them. President Biden must make up for the squandered time by acting to curb car emissions by this summer. 

Putting cleaner cars on the road benefits us all, but especially the communities of color and low-income communities most exposed to vehicle pollution. Many communities are still living with the harms created by racist “urban renewal” projects that built highways through the centers of thriving neighborhoods, funneling resources from urban centers to white-flight suburbs, and leaving poverty and pollution behind. Strong federal clean car standards will protect every single one of us, not just the 40 percent who live in the states that have adopted the stronger California standards. Strong standards are supported by a wide range of advocates and essential to addressing the disproportionate impacts of tailpipe pollution on communities of color. 

As Biden continues to take bold action on climate, he can meet his necessary goals and commitments by investing in the next generation of vehicles. Clean car technology is improving quickly, and nearly every major automaker has begun investing in the transition to electric vehicles. Ramping up clean car standards will incentivize automakers to double down, putting us on the path toward having pollution-free cars, trucks and buses this decade, taking a significant step toward averting the worst impacts of climate change while creating good-paying jobs in electric vehicle manufacturing right here in the U.S. 

Biden has an opportunity to go further than any previous president in fighting the climate crisis, reducing pollution in the hardest-hit communities, and creating green jobs. Our communities deserve to breathe clean air and be safe from climate disaster. By implementing strong clean car standards, Biden can bring that vision closer to reality.

Ramón Cruz is the president of the Sierra Club.

Tags carbon emissions Clean Air Act clean car standard Climate change Donald Trump emission reduction Greenhouse gas Joe Biden Ramon Cruz

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