Joe Biden ramped up his climate change policies on Thursday by signing an executive order calling for half of all new vehicles sold in the US to be electric by 2030 as part of plans to slash transport emissions. The US president announced the target as he said federal agencies laid plans to reverse former president Donald Trump’s gutting of aggressive Obama-era rules on fuel efficiency and vehicle emissions.

Cars and trucks that can drive further on the same amount of fuel emit less pollution. The US Environmental Protection Agency and US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that for Model Year 2023, vehicles would need to achieve 38.2mpg under real-world driving conditions. In 2012, former president Barack Obama set the target at 36.8mpg, but Trump lowered it to 32.2mpg.

Automakers would need to improve efficiency 10 per cent between Model Year 2022 and 2023, with the pace of annual improvement slowing to 5 per cent in Model Year 2026. But environmentalists said the new targets cannot undo the damage of the Trump years. The vehicles sold during that period will continue to pollute at higher rates as long as they are driven.

The world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases has lagged behind China and Europe in the take-up of electric vehicles. In the US they comprise about 2 per cent of the market and Tesla dominates sales, against about 6% in China, 10% in Europe and 11% in the UK. The EU toughened its emission standards in its latest policy, amounting to a de facto ban on the sale of all new diesel and petrol cars by 2035. The UK aims to end the sale of all new petrol and diesel cars by 2030. Senior US administration officials said that while the 50% target would not be enforceable, it would provide a market signal that would push carmakers towards electrification.

“It’s a central element of the president’s climate agenda to tackle the emissions in the [transport] space and it’s a central element of his economic agenda to help us grow our leadership in electric vehicles,” said one senior administration official. Biden came to office with ambitious plans to tackle climate change. By the end of the decade he wants to cut the country’s greenhouse gas emissions to half of what they were in 2005, with the aim of reaching net zero by 2050. Transport accounts for about 29 per cent of US emissions, more than any other sector, making addressing it central to any plan to cut greenhouse gases.

New electric car sales in 2020 by Country

Norway 75% Sweden 32% Netherlands 25% Germany 13.5% France and UK 11% China 6% Spain 5% Canada 4% US 2% Source: IEA

Chief executives from carmakers Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, which comprises Fiat Chrysler and France’s PSA, all attended the ceremony where Biden signed the executive order. Each company has announced its own targets for 40 per cent to 50 per cent of their sales to be zero-emissions vehicles — which includes battery-electric plug-in, hybrid electric and fuel cell electric vehicles — by the end of the decade. GM said in January that it would aim to stop manufacturing petrol-powered cars in 2035, the first of the big carmakers to set a target. Ford said in May that 40 per cent of its global car sales would be electric by 2030. But there is scepticism among some environmentalists who remember when, nearly a decade ago, Obama and automakers stood together and pledged to reduce emissions with more efficient vehicles. Then some manufacturers lobbied the Trump administration to roll them back. Ann Mesnikoff, legislative director for the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said that there is a general sense that the new targets “will not compensate for the weakening the Trump administration did”.

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