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Biden Calls For An All-Electric Federal Fleet. GM Is Going Electric. And Your SUV Is Still A Big Problem

Photo taken late afternoon traffic of West Mineral Ave. and South Santa Fe Dr. intersection in Littleton, Colorado on Thursday. January 28, 2021. (Hyoung Chang/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Photo taken late afternoon traffic of West Mineral Ave. and South Santa Fe Dr. intersection in Littleton, Colorado on Thursday. January 28, 2021. (Hyoung Chang/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

During his first days in the White House, President Joe Biden has taken some momentous steps to focus America on our global climate crisis. Along with rejoining the Paris climate accord, canceling the Keystone XL Pipeline, and freezing new oil and gas drilling on federal land, he announced last week that the U.S. government will begin the process of shifting its vehicle fleet to electricity.

On January 28, General Motors announced its own plan to go all-electric, setting 2035 as its target year. Yet GM’s soon-to-be released electric vehicle flagship, the three-ton, 1,000-horsepower all-electric Hummer, stands as a warning that American auto manufacturers will not be abandoning their energy-wasteful giants, even as they move from internal combustion engines to electric power.

As a further step toward reining in our transportation excesses, Biden has said he will revive the Obama administration’s fuel economy and carbon emissions standards. While that may sound reassuring, we need to do more than undo the damage caused by Donald Trump.

Even a full restoration of Obama-era policies will leave gaping loopholes in a regulatory regime that, for decades, has allowed super-sized vehicles to run amok.

The policy flaw that opened the door to big, gas-guzzling vehicles dates back to 1975, when the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards were first introduced. The original CAFE policy set one mileage standard for cars and another, more lenient standard for “light trucks,” including SUVs, vans and pickup trucks. At the time, this dual standard may have seemed like an innocuous sidebar. Pickups weren’t pervasive and SUVs were hardly heard of. (The term “SUV” first appeared in an ad for the Jeep Cherokee in 1974.)

The downscaling of our automotive goliaths is long overdue.

Soon, however, U.S. auto manufacturers began to shift their product lines. In 1980, less than one in five new vehicles was a pickup, minivan or SUV.  By 2008, the year Obama was elected, light trucks had grown to occupy nearly half the auto market, and when he completed his second term eight years later, they constituted 61% of new vehicle sales.

The gap widened further during Trump’s presidency, with light trucks reaching 72% in 2019. That same year, light trucks manufactured by General Motors accounted for 84% of its total U.S. sales.

The Obama administration did make some notable improvements in the fuel economy standards. Most significantly, mileage standards were paired for the first time with corresponding limits on greenhouse gas emissions. The federal Department of Transportation took the lead in addressing fuel economy, as it had done in the past, while the Environmental Protection Agency set limits on carbon emissions.

In another positive move, the Obama administration set a schedule for steadily ratcheting up motor vehicle mileage and carbon emission standards. The impact of this step was compromised, however, by a “footprint” formula that, for the first time, assigned more lenient standards to larger vehicles in the passenger car and light truck categories. Automakers took advantage of this incentive, swelling the size of their vehicle models so that they could qualify for less stringent controls.

Several years of cheap gas prices and a relentless barrage of car ads pushing top-of-the-line SUVs and pickups are among the reasons growing numbers of consumers are opting for bigger vehicles. Yet built-in policy bias is also to blame, making it all too easy for automakers to shed their smaller, more efficient cars and trucks. By 2018, transportation had surpassed electricity production as the number-one source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, generating 28% of those pollutants. In our auto-dependent nation, it should be no surprise that cars and trucks create the lion's share of that pollution.

To meet Biden’s goal of achieving a 100% clean energy economy by 2050, maximizing energy efficiency will be as important as ramping up our supplies of carbon-free electricity. 

Those who set their sights on an all-electric automotive future might wonder why the Biden administration should worry about closing loopholes in policies that focus primarily on conventionally fueled vehicles. The answer is twofold.

First, while the prospect of an all-electric vehicle fleet is alluring, we are decades away from achieving that goal. We therefore can’t afford to shrug our shoulders while most of our cars and trucks continue to rely on gasoline and diesel fuel.

Second, an electrified U.S. fleet dominated by oversized SUVs and pickups will consume substantially more energy than a leaner line of electric vehicles, making it much harder for clean electricity sources to edge out the gas and coal plants that still supply most of our electricity.

Renewable energy is on the ascent, but we need to reckon soberly with the fact that our most promising new sources of clean energy -- wind and solar -- meet less than a tenth of today’s power demand. To meet President Biden’s goal of achieving a 100% clean energy economy by 2050, maximizing energy efficiency will be as important as ramping up our supplies of carbon-free electricity.

Decades of compromised policy, bad corporate practices and labor union pressures have shown that U.S. automakers will not, of their own accord, keep the scale of their vehicles in check. The profits made from the sale of larger cars and trucks have been all too alluring.

But enough is enough. The downscaling of our automotive goliaths is long overdue.

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Philip Warburg Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Philip Warburg is a senior fellow at Boston University's Institute for Sustainable Energy

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