EPA study shows bigger cars are holding back progress on climate change

Ram 1500 models can be seen on the lot at the Mak Haik dealership on December 14, 2022 in Houston, Texas.  (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Ram 1500 models can be seen on the lot at the Mak Haik dealership on December 14, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

U.S. automakers and consumers are holding back progress in reducing climate-changing carbon emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2022 Automotive Trends report. ​​​​​​While mpg is gradually increasing in each vehicle weight class, the current shift from sedans to trucks and SUVs with lower fuel efficiency requirements and to larger trucks and SUVs than those that were popular in previous decades are stripped of most of the expected amenities.

Environmental and consumer advocates express disappointment.

“The bottom line is that fleet-wide fuel economy has not improved,” Avi Mersky, a transportation researcher at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, said in a statement about the report, which analyzes data on vehicles sold in 2021 compared to previous years. for years. . “It’s bad news for pump drivers and bad news for the climate.”

“Some models have become more efficient,” Mersky noted, “but because automakers are so actively selling large SUVs, they are taking up an ever-increasing share of the market.” Manufacturers are undoing all the progress in efficiency as they sell bigger cars.’

The EPA sets average fuel economy standards that require car manufacturers to achieve a certain mpg for each class of vehicle. Partly as a result, the mpg of cars sold in the US has roughly doubled since 1975, cutting carbon emissions per mile in half. But the move to larger models, which the agency allows to have lower average fuel economy standards, has kept those improvements from being even greater.

An SUV gets gas at a gas station in Los Angeles

An SUV gets gas at a gas station in Los Angeles. (Alison Dinner/Getty Images)

Last year, when fuel efficiency in every weight category reached record values, the shift to heavier vehicle types offset that progress. In 2021, all new cars and trucks sold in the U.S. had the same overall efficiency, 25.4 mpg, that was achieved in 2020.

“In the 2021 model year, sedans and wagons have fallen to 26% of the market, well below the 50% market share they held in the 2013 model year and well below the 80% market share they held in 1975,” she noted. EPA. in the report. “In contrast, cargo SUVs reached a record 45% of the market in the 2021 model year, while pickups increased to 16% of the market.”

“Truck SUVs” refer to SUVs that are so large that they are classified by the EPA as trucks rather than light trucks, allowing them to meet the lower mpg standard. As the Detroit Free Press reported in 2018, many new SUVs are often so large that they don’t fit in the garages of older homes. Their production in 2021 increased by 6%, while production of sedans decreased by 5%.

“Automakers are simultaneously making fewer cars in favor of trucks and making more trucks themselves,” Mersky told Yahoo News. “It’s also worth noting that even in these categories, car footprint is creeping up. … There is no category of vehicle where the footprints (dimensions) of the vehicle remain the same or are reduced. The average car in all categories increased. While most vehicle categories grew on average [miles per gallon]the rate of improvement in the category was much lower than would have been required by the standards had there not been a significant increase in the fleet.’

Ford's 2021 Bronco SUV on the assembly line at the company's Wayne, Michigan assembly plant.

The 2021 Ford Bronco SUV on the assembly line at the company’s assembly plant in Wayne, Michigan (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

While fuel efficiency regulations were launched in 1971 to reduce common air pollutants such as nitrogen oxide from tailpipes, they have become a key part of how the federal government tries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation is the largest contributor to emissions in the US, and the United States has committed to reducing its emissions by 50% by 2030 in international climate change agreements.

The Biden administration has finalized ambitious new increases in required fuel efficiency for the 2024-2026 model years, but climate experts and advocates are calling for it to go further in the next round of standards, which will be proposed next March and will govern the 2027 model years and beyond.

“The EPA could reduce the slope of the standards,” Mersky said, meaning the difference in allowable fuel economy between larger and smaller vehicles would be reduced. In addition, the agency could create a minimum average efficiency for the entire fleet, so that if too many consumers switch to cars in a larger class, the standards in that class must be raised to meet the overall average.

“The Environmental Protection Agency would also be justified in adding a ‘safeguard’ to these standards,” Mersky added. “This would be a fleet-wide fuel economy minimum that, if not met, would automatically tighten fuel economy and emissions standards for all vehicles.”

The EPA did not comment before publication on whether it was considering such a move. Any tougher new regulation risks being overturned by a future Republican administration. The Obama administration required efficiency gains of more than 20% for the 2016 to 2021 model years, but the Trump administration rolled back those rules. As a result of this policy change and the shift to larger vehicles, the country’s fuel economy has only increased by 5% over the years.

Traffic on Interstate 405 in Los Angeles

Traffic on Interstate 405 in Los Angeles. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

Climate change isn’t the only reason many bemoan the trend toward bigger trucks.

Traffic safety advocates point out that taller cars make it harder for drivers to see pedestrians — especially children and wheelchair users — and that heavier cars cause more damage in collisions. This is the main reason why the share of pedestrians in traffic deaths has increased from 13% in 2010 to 17% in 2020, according to the Governor’s Highway Safety Association. mortality increased by 13%,” the organization noted. In 2021, drivers hit 7,485 pedestrians, the highest number in 40 years.

A study published in September in the Journal of Safety Research found that in accidents in which children were hit by a car while walking or cycling, cars were the primary vehicle in 62% of the cases, but they resulted in only 19% of fatalities. cases. while SUVs were the prominent vehicle in 16.9% of collisions involving children, but were the cause of 40% of fatalities. And in 2020, a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that 100% of pedestrians struck by SUVs traveling 40 miles per hour or more died, while 54% of those struck by cars traveling at that speed , died.

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which is a lobbying group for automakers, declined to comment for this story, but noted that the industry is making progress in one key area: electric cars. There are currently 83 electric vehicle models available for sale in the US. Between 2020 and 2021, electric vehicles’ share of new car sales in the US doubled from 2% to 4%, and they are set to increase significantly again this year. In the second quarter of 2022, they accounted for 6.6% of new passenger car sales.

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