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Electric Vehicles

7 Big Takeaways from the EPA’s Electric Vehicles Push

From what it means for America’s climate goals to how it might make American cars smaller again

EPA seal and a freeway.
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The Biden administration just kicked off the next phase of the electric-vehicle revolution.

The Environmental Protection Agency unveiled Wednesday some of the world’s most aggressive climate rules on the transportation sector, a sweeping effort that aims to ensure that two-thirds of new cars, SUVs, and pickups — and one-quarter of new heavy-duty trucks — sold in the United States in 2032 will be all electric.

The rules, which are the most ambitious attempt to regulate greenhouse-gas pollution in American history, would put the country at the forefront of the global transition to electric vehicles. If adopted and enforced as proposed, the new standards could eventually prevent 10 billion tons of carbon pollution, roughly double America’s total annual emissions last year, the EPA says.

The rules would roughly halve carbon pollution from America’s massive car and truck fleet, the world’s third largest, within a decade. Such a cut is in line with Biden’s Paris Agreement goal of cutting carbon pollution from across the economy in half by 2030.

Transportation generates more carbon pollution than any other part of the U.S. economy. America’s hundreds of millions of cars, SUVs, pickups, 18-wheelers, and other vehicles generated roughly 25% of total U.S. carbon emissions last year, a figure roughly equal to the entire power sector’s.

In short, the proposal is a big deal with many implications. Here are seven of them.

1. The EPA’s New Rules Are Roughly in Line with Averting 1.5 Degrees Celsius of Warming

Ice melting.

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Every country around the world must cut its emissions in half by 2030 in order for the world to avoid 1.5 degrees Celsius of temperature rise, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That goal, enshrined in the Paris Agreement, is a widely used benchmark for the arrival of climate change’s worst impacts — deadly heat waves, stronger storms, and a near total die-off of coral reefs.

The new proposal would bring America’s cars and trucks roughly in line with that requirement. According to an EPA estimate, the vehicle fleet’s net carbon emissions would be 46% lower in 2032 than they stand today.

That means that rules of this ambition and stringency are a necessary part of meeting America’s goals under the Paris Agreement. The United States has pledged to halve its carbon emissions, as compared to its all-time high, by 2020. The country is not on track to meet that goal today, but robust federal, state, and corporate action — including strict vehicle rules — could help it get there, a recent report from the Rhodium Group, an energy-research firm, found.

2. The EPA Rules Give America Some of the World’s Most Ambitious EV Policy

Charging.

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Until this week, California and the European Union had been leading the world’s transition to electric vehicles. Both jurisdictions have pledged to ban sales of new fossil-fuel-powered cars after 2035 and set aggressive targets to meet that goal — although Europe recently watered down its commitment by allowing some cars to burn synthetic fuels.

The United States hasn’t issued a similar ban. But under the new rules, its timeline for adopting EVs will come close to both jurisdictions — although it may slightly lag California’s. By 2030, EVs will make up about 58% of new vehicles sold in Europe, according to the think tank Transportation & Environment; that is roughly in line with the EPA’s goals.

California, meanwhile, expects two-thirds of new car sales to be EVs by the same year, putting it ahead of the EPA’s proposal. The difference between California’s targets and the EPA’s may come down to technical accounting differences, however. The Washington Post has reported that the new EPA rules are meant to harmonize the national standards with California’s.

3. The EPA Rules Will Generally Make Automakers Pick Up the Pace of the EV Transition

Car assembly line.

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With or without the rules, the United States was already likely to see far more EVs in the future. Ford has said that it would aim for half of its global sales to be electric by 2030, and Stellantis, which owns Chrysler and Jeep, announced that half of its American sales and all its European sales must be all-electric by that same date. General Motors has pledged to sell only EVs after 2035. In fact, the EPA expects that automakers are collectively on track for 44% of vehicle sales to be electric by 2030 without any changes to emissions rules.

But every manufacturer is on a different timeline, and some weren’t planning to move quite this quickly. John Bozella, the president of Alliance for Automotive Innovation, has struck a skeptical note about the proposal. “Remember this: A lot has to go right for this massive — and unprecedented — change in our automotive market and industrial base to succeed,” he told The New York Times.

The proposed rules would unify the industry and push it a bit further than current plans suggest.

4. But the Heavy-Duty Truck Rules Are Underwhelming.

Garbage truck.

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The EPA’s proposal would see sales of all-electric heavy trucks grow beginning with model year 2027. The agency estimates that by 2032, some 50% of “vocational” vehicles sold — like delivery trucks, garbage trucks, and cement mixers — will be zero-emissions, as well as 35% of short-haul tractors and 25% of long-haul tractor trailers. This would save about 1.8 billion tons of CO2 through 2055 — roughly equivalent to one year’s worth of emissions from the transportation sector.

But the proposal falls short of where the market is already headed, some environmental groups pointed out. “It’s not driving manufacturers to do anything,” said Paul Cort, director of Earthjustice’s Right to Zero campaign. “It’s following what’s happening in the market in a very conservative way.”

Last year, California passed rules requiring 60% of vocational truck sales and 40% of tractors to be zero-emissions by 2032. Daimler, the world’s largest truck manufacturer, has said that zero emissions trucks would make up 60% of its truck sales by 2030 and 100% by 2039. Volvo Trucks, another major player, said it aims for 50% of its vehicle deliveries to be electric by 2030.

5. The New EPA Rules Try to Close A Loophole that Encourages Bigger Cars and SUVs

Hummers.

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One of the more interesting aspects of the new rules is that they pick up on a controversy that has been running on and off for the past 13 years.

In 2010, the Obama administration issued the first-ever greenhouse-gas regulations for light-duty cars, SUVs, and trucks. In order to avoid a Supreme Court challenge to the rules, the White House did something unprecedented: It got every automaker to agree to meet the standards even before they became law.

This was a milestone in the history of American environmental law. Because the automakers agreed to the rules, they were in effect conceding that the EPA had the legal authority to regulate their greenhouse-gas pollution in the first place. That shored up the EPA’s legal authority to limit greenhouse gases from any part of the economy, allowing the agency to move on to limiting carbon pollution from power plants and factories.

But that acquiescence came at a cost. The Obama administration agreed to what are called “vehicle footprint” provisions, which put its rules on a sliding scale based on vehicle size. Essentially, these footprint provisions said that a larger vehicle — such as a three-row SUV or full-sized pickup — did not have to meet the same standards as a compact sedan. What’s more, an automaker only had to meet the standards that matched the footprint of the cars it actually sold. In other words, a company that sold only SUVs and pickups would face lower overall requirements than one that also sold sedans, coupes, and station wagons.

Some of this decision was out of Obama’s hands: Congress had required that the Department of Transportation, which issues a similar set of rules, consider vehicle footprint in laws that passed in 2007 and 1975. Those same laws also created the regulatory divide between cars and trucks.

But over the past decade, SUV and truck sales have boomed in the United States, while the market for old-fashioned cars has withered. In 2019, SUVs outsold cars two to one; big SUVs and trucks of every type now make up nearly half the new car market. In the past decade, too, the crossover — a new type of car-like vehicle that resembles a light-duty truck — has come to dominate the American road. This has had repercussions not just for emissions, but pedestrian fatalities as well.

Researchers have argued that the footprint rules may be at least partially to blame for this trend. In 2018, economists at the University of Chicago and UC Berkeley argued Japan’s tailpipe rules, which also include a footprint mechanism, pushed automakers to super-size their cars. Modeling studies have reached the same conclusion about the American rules.

For the first time, the EPA’s proposal seems to recognize this criticism and tries to address it. The new rules make the greenhouse-gas requirements for cars and trucks more similar than they have been in the past, so as to not “inadvertently provide an incentive for manufacturers to change the size or regulatory class of vehicles as a compliance strategy,” the EPA says in a regulatory filing.

The new rules also tighten requirements on big cars and trucks so that automakers can’t simply meet the rules by enlarging their vehicles.

These changes may not reverse the trend toward larger cars. It might even reveal how much cars’ recent growth is driven by consumer taste: SUVs’ share of the new car market has been growing almost without exception since the Ford Explorer debuted in 1991. But it marks the first admission by the agency that in trying to secure a climate win, it may have accidentally created a monster.

6. The EPA Rules Have Big Ramifications for Oil Markets

Oil pumps.

Heatmap Illustration/Buenavista Images via Getty Images

The EPA is trumpeting the energy security benefits of the proposal, in addition to its climate benefits.

While the U.S. is a net exporter of crude — and that’s not expected to change in the coming decades — U.S. refineries still rely on “significant imports of heavy crude which could be subject to supply disruptions,” the agency notes. This reliance ties the U.S. to authoritarian regimes around the world and also exposes American consumers to wilder swings in gas prices.

But the new greenhouse gas rules are expected to severely diminish the country’s dependence on foreign oil. Between cars and trucks, the rules would cut crude oil imports by 124 million barrels per year by 2030, and 1 billion barrels in 2050. For context, the United States imported about 2.2 billion barrels of crude oil in 2021.

This would also be a turning point for gas stations. Americans consumed about 135 billion gallons of gasoline in 2022. The rules would cut into gas sales by about 6.5 billion gallons by 2030, and by more than 50 billion gallons by 2050. Gas stations are going to have to adapt or fade away.

7. The Rules Probably Won’t Stress the Electricity Grid Too Much

Transmission lines.

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Although it may seem like these new electric vehicles could tax our aging, stressed electricity grid, the EPA claims these rules won’t change the status quo very much. The agency estimates the rules would require a small, 0.4% increase in electricity generation to meet new EV demand by 2030 compared to business as usual, with generation needs increasing by 4% by 2050. “The expected increase in electric power demand attributable to vehicle electrification is not expected to adversely affect grid reliability,” the EPA wrote.

Still, that’s compared to the trajectory we’re already on. With or without these rules, we’ll need a lot of investment in new power generation and reliability improvements in the coming years to handle an electrifying economy. “Standards or no standards, we have to have grid operators preparing for EVs,” said Samantha Houston, a senior vehicles analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from replacing gas cars will also far outweigh any emissions related to increased power demands. The EPA estimates that between now and 2055, the rules could drive up power plant pollution by 710 million metric tons, but will cut emissions from cars by 8 billion tons.



This article was last updated on April 13 at 12:37 PM ET.

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Robinson Meyer profile image

Robinson Meyer

Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology.

Emily Pontecorvo profile image

Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal.

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