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Traffic moves along the Hollywood Freeway in Los Angeles on Dec. 12, 2018.The Associated Press

Canada is being dragged backward on a key environmental issue by the Trump administration’s rollback of fuel economy standards, and it’s going to end up costing drivers, and the planet, if it is allowed to stand.

Since Canadian fuel economy regulations cite those in the U.S., Canada has now – as of March 31 – automatically adopted Trump’s weaker standards, a spokesperson for the Minister of Environment and Climate Change confirmed.

Now is absolutely not the time to back off on all the progress that’s been made toward producing cleaner cars. Quite the opposite – we should be pushing ahead with an ambitious plan to remake the automobile as we know it in order to help mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

The Trump administration’s new standards require automakers to improve their fleets’ fuel efficiency by a modest 1.5 per cent per year, which is a far cry from the 5-per-cent improvements required under the Obama-era rules. That means average real-world fuel economy will be around 7.4 L/100 km for 2026 vehicles, rather the 6.3 L/100 km under previous rules, according to research by Consumer Reports.

The difference may seem small, but it adds up to a lot money. Drivers will spend US$2,100 more on the average new vehicle, according to Consumer Reports. In Canada, that figure could be even higher, since fuel costs more. Any savings on the initial purchase price of a simpler, less-efficient car will be more than offset by the cost of increased fuel consumption.

If you read Trump’s tweets, you would be lead to believe otherwise. He lashed out at the, “politically correct Automobile Companies,” and touted a $3,500 savings per vehicle, which is over and above even the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s own estimate of a $1,400 in savings over the life of a vehicle.

As several media outlets pointed out, the data in the administration’s own analysis of the new regulations found they could impose an overall cost on the economy of up to $22-billion and, in fact, make cars more expensive to own.

The long-term cost to our climate is less easy to calculate, but surely much higher.

“By remaining aligned with the weakened U.S. federal vehicle regulations, Canada can expect nearly 6 million tonnes more GHG emissions in 2030 – foregoing 40 per cent of the expected emission reductions from the transportation sector,” according to analysis by the International Council on Clean Transportation, an independent research organization.

In other words, Trump’s new fuel emissions standard will make it very difficult, if not impossible, for Canada to meet our existing climate targets.

Consumer-led?

The auto industry said, essentially, that since consumers are buying too many fuel-hungry SUVs, the old Obama-era targets are no longer feasible.

“The standards originally developed almost a decade ago are no longer appropriate in light of shifting market conditions and consumer preferences,” according to a statement by the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a new industry association that represents all major automakers.

Blaming consumers here isn’t quite fair. For one thing, automakers benefit from selling SUVs and crossovers; they provide fatter profit margins compared to cars. For another, drivers didn’t all wake up one day and decide to ditch wagons and sedans in favour of SUVs. A loophole in the 2011 U.S. fuel-economy regulations, introduced under Obama, drove automakers to produce more crossovers and SUVs. That, probably more than consumer taste, is why dealerships are full of SUVs now. This loophole favoured the big three U.S. automakers: General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. It’s hard to imagine that was an accident.

“The proposal encourages manufacturers and customers to shift toward larger, less-efficient vehicles, defeating the goal of reduced greenhouse-gas emissions,” a VW spokesperson said in 2011. All these years later, we can see that statement was bang-on. Total greenhouse-gas emissions from passenger vehicles continue to rise, according to Canada’s 2019 GHG inventory.

The premise that the Obama-era targets are impossible for automakers to meet has been disputed as well.

“We weren’t shooting for the moon here. The technology to improve vehicle efficiency already exists, and the standards simply asked automakers to install it,” David Friedman, vice-president of advocacy at Consumer Reports, said in a statement.

What’s a driver to do?

For now, Canadian drivers are unlikely to see any changes due to the new fuel-economy regulations.

The Trump administration’s new standards face lengthy court battles. Environmental groups will likely challenge the new regulations, too.

Last year, Canada signed an agreement with California to collaborate on vehicle-emissions regulation. That’s also tangled up in a legal fracas. Trump moved to revoke California’s right to set its own vehicle-emissions standards. Then California, along with 22 other states, hit back with a lawsuit against the federal government.

Only four automakers initially agreed to voluntarily stick to California’s proposed fuel-economy targets: Ford, Honda, BMW and Volkswagen. Volvo recently joined that list as well.

Canada, meanwhile, is still sitting on the sidelines, considering what to do now.

“As Canada reviews its options, we will consider [the] announcement by the U.S. [Environmental Protection Agency] as well as California’s standards,” a spokesperson for Minister of the Environment and Climate Change wrote in a statement.

The good news in this whole pointless mess is that new car models are developed four or five years before they hit showrooms and planned long before that. It will be a few years before completely new vehicles built to Trump’s standards go on sale. By that time, the new standards may have long since thrown out in court.

Hopefully, automakers see the light and step up long-term efforts to improve fuel efficiency and shift away from fossil fuels. Administrations come and go, but the climate crisis is here to stay.

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