Actually, fuel economy standards are a great way to tackle carbon emissions

plug-in hybrid prius

A Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid vehicle (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

It feels like it’s been ages since I wrote a post taking down something that someone else has written. I get the impression that is what people enjoy on the World Wide Web these days, plus it’s pretty fun to rip apart a person’s specious argument – using peer-reviewed literature and well-sourced facts, of course.

With that in mind, I feel somewhat obligated to address an op-ed I read in the Los Angeles Times on Monday from Salim Furth, a research fellow at the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation. In the piece, Furth argues that state and federal fuel economy standards are a poor policy tool for limiting mobile greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and that they unfairly harm low-income families. Instead, he calls for California state officials to focus their attention on land use reforms that would “allow denser, environmentally conscious construction” to “make residents less dependent on car.”

On the surface, this seems reasonable. I’ve written in the past about how promoting denser, infill development patterns in sprawling metro areas like Cleveland could go a long way towards improving air quality and limiting GHG emissions. To the extent that Furth is calling for these sorts of policies, we are probably on the same page.

Except, when you dig into his argument, it collapses like the proverbial house of cards. As the folks at Climate Nexus argued, “Instead of suggesting policy that would preserve more land to act as a carbon sink, Furth writes that California should instead relax the permitting process so that development is even easier.” And this is exactly what he argues. While it’s true that NIMBY-ism can inhibit the development of denser, multifamily housing (see: Washington, DC), it takes a certain amount of rhetorical gymnastics to assert that the fault lies with environmental regulations. I guess that’s what you get when dealing with stuff from Heritage.

Comparing fuel economy to land use planning

But none of this gets to the central thesis of Furth’s argument – that fuel economy standards are less effective tools for curbing GHG emissions than “streamlined” permitting and “more permissive zoning laws.” Why enforce regulations that cost the average family roughly $4,000 to only mitigate global climate change by a fraction of a percent?

Leaving aside the fact that Furth demands California repeal state fuel economy rules that even he admits were superseded by President Obama’s 2011 CAFE standards, does his main point hold water? Well, he never actually provides a shred of evidence to support his argument, for one. How can we know if the CAFE standards will cut GHG emissions less than land use reform if we don’t have numbers for the latter?

Fortunately, there exist a number of studies and reports that dig into the potential for land use reform to mitigate climate change. At the local level, several of these analyses have come from metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), which are federally-mandated agencies that conduct transportation and environmental planning activities for urban areas.

Back in 2008, California lawmakers passed SB 375, the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act, which requires every MPO in the state to develop a sustainable communities strategy (SCS) that outlines its approach to meeting its GHG emission reduction target. These targets are established by the California Air Resources Board (CARB). To what extent can land use planning by MPOs contribute to these these goals? And do the projected reductions in GHG emissions exceed those from fuel economy standards?

In a word, no. CARB estimated (PDF) in 2010 that regional transportation and land use policies can only account for one-sixth of the GHG reductions generated by federal CAFE and low-carbon fuel standards through 2020. That proportion will likely increase after 2020, as the full effects of those long-term policies are realized, but they still pale in comparison. Given that Furth is writing about California, you think he’d be aware of these data.

Evidence from outside California

Findings from MPOs in other states back up CARB. Washington, DC’s MPO found similar results (PDF). The region’s leaders set a goal of reducing GHGs 80% versus a 2005 business as usual (BAU) scenario by 2050. According to their analyses, enacting new land use and transportation policies at the metro level can only make up 3.3% of this 80%. Increasing CAFE standards to 99 could account for 30% of the reduction, however, making this approach 10 times more effective. While raising CAFE standards would likely lead to something of a rebound effect by making driving cheaper, the results are still impressive.

The Puget Sound Regional Council (PDF) – Seattle’s MPO – has also modeled the potential GHG savings from various policies. They found that more compact development and better pricing transportation could cut GHGs by 6% and 9% compared to BAU, respectively. Emissions control strategies, like stricter fuel economy standards and the electrification of the vehicle fleet, have the potential to cut GHG emissions by 25-43%, depending on how aggressive they are. Even in the more conservative scenario, these standards outperform land use controls. The benefits of land use policies take an outsized role in Seattle, as transportation accounts for two-thirds of the city’s total emissions, because it’s electric grid is so much cleaner than the national average. Accordingly, Seattle is the best case scenario for Furth’s argument, but it still falls short.

ghg savings from different scenarios

Potential GHG reductions from various policy instruments under different scenarios (courtesy of Puget Sound Regional Council).


And just to hammer my point home further, the Transportation Research Board (TRB) published a comprehensive report on this topic back in 2009. The authors modeled the impacts on GHG emissions from 2000 to 2030 and 2050 under two scenarios, which assumed that 25% and 75% of all new housing would be be built in compact development areas, respectively.

While scenario 1 only sees GHG emissions fall 1.3-1.7% by 2050, while scenario 2 bumps this number up to 8-11%. But, again, tightening CAFE standards wins the day. The study finds that adding aggressive fuel economy requirements to scenario 2 can increase the GHG reduction potential up to 39-51%. The report states, “In short, over the longer time frame (i.e. to 2050), the impacts of continuing improvements in fuel economy beyond 2020 on energy use and CO2 emissions significantly outstrip those from more compact development.”

As is so often the case, an op-ed emerging from The Heritage Foundation is tripped up by the think tank’s old nemesis – math.

In the effort to cut GHG emissions and battle climate change, we don’t need to privilege better land use planning at the expense of tighter fuel economy standards. We need to harness every policy tool at our disposal, and these are two great tastes that taste great together. While it’s true that better fuel economy can undermine some of the GHG benefits of compact land use, we should clearly pursue these approaches in tandem. For, in the long-run, more compact, mixed-use development and more efficient vehicles are both important tools for improving air quality, reducing transportation costs, revitalizing our neighborhoods, enhancing public health, and battling climate change.

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