Skip to main content
Welcome to
super saver spring
offer ends april 20
save over $140
save over 85%
$0.99
per week for 24 weeks
Welcome to
super saver spring
$0.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

Near the start of the afternoon rush hour commute, eastbound traffic on Sheppard Ave East heads towards Don Mills Road in Toronto.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

U.S. President Donald Trump and his carbon-loving environmental chief Scott Pruitt are easy to criticize for their gassy prevarication on climate change and fossilized thinking about coal. But when it comes to fuel-efficiency standards, they aren't the ones in denial.

The 2025 fuel-economy targets first set in 2010 by former president Barack Obama's administration, and seconded by Canada's then Conservative government, always seemed about as realistic as a hyperloop between Montreal and Toronto. Once oil prices tanked a few years later, they became just another example of fantasy climate regulation, a favourite game of self-proclaimed progressive politicians.

Just before leaving office, Mr. Obama's Environmental Protection Agency nixed a scheduled review of its requirement aimed at raising the average fuel economy of light-duty vehicles sold in North America to 54.5 miles a gallon by 2025, which is equivalent to a fuel consumption of 4.3 litres per 100 kilometres.

Story continues below advertisement

There's nothing wrong with setting ambitious goals. But as countless unrealized emissions targets have proved, they become meaningless without some basis in reality. According to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2016 car models averaged 32.1 miles a gallon, or 7.3l/100 km. The agency expects fuel economy will actually decline in the 2017 model year to 31.8 m/g, or 7.4l/100km.

Reaching the 54.5 m/g-mark by 2025 would require nothing less than a sudden love affair between Americans and the Chevy Spark. Somehow, we don't see that happening. Improvements in engine efficiency are an incremental endeavour. And while auto makers are continually integrating lighter materials into their designs, Americans are still opting for bigger vehicles.

Pickups and sport utility vehicles accounted for 63 per cent of the record 17.6 million light-duty vehicles sold in the United States in 2016, up from 50 per cent in 2013. Ford's F-Series pickup was the top-selling vehicle, with more than 800,000 of the thirsty beasts rolling off U.S. lots. In Canada, crossovers, pickups and SUVs made up 70 per cent of the 1.95 million vehicles sold in 2016.

It would take a carbon tax several times the $50-a-tonne levy promised by 2022 by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government to get Canadians to change their car preferences. It would be even tougher to dissuade most Americans from forgoing their God-given right to a gas guzzler.

Yet, meeting the Obama fuel-economy standards was always conditional on shifting consumer preferences to compact and subcompact cars, and especially to hybrid and electric vehicles. It was always a tall order. Cheap gas made it a ridiculous one.

North American auto makers, in particular, have never been able to make money on small cars. That's one of the reasons they shifted production of such models to low-cost jurisdictions such as Mexico. But forcing them to meet a small-car sales quota would be a recipe for the 2009 auto bailouts all over again.

Speaking of money losers, EV sales remain peakish. Despite the lucrative government incentives offered to their typically well-off buyers, only about 160,000 EVs were sold in the United States and 11,000 in Canada last year. That's less than 1 per cent of all vehicle sales.

Story continues below advertisement

A 2016 World Energy Council report estimated EVs would need to account for 16 per cent of U.S., Chinese and European auto sales by 2020 in order to meet fuel economy improvement targets set in those jurisdictions. No country comes close to that level of EV sales, except for perhaps Norway, a lovely country but one hardly known for its critical mass.

None of this suggests Mr. Trump should abandon all fuel economy targets altogether, though he might. But the Obama administration edict was patently ineffective and, if the fines for non-compliance it contemplated were actually applied, it would financially weaken the competitiveness of North American car manufacturers.

"The assault on the American auto industry is over," Mr. Trump told auto workers in Michigan on Wednesday, adding that he would create a "a task force in every federal agency to identify and remove any regulation that undermines American auto production."

What should Mr. Trudeau and the Ontario government do? Meeting fuel economy targets is more about cars sold than cars produced. When it comes to meeting Canada's climate goals, it wouldn't matter if Ontario manufactures gas guzzlers if Ontario drivers purchase more imported EVs, which Queen's Park subsidizes to the tune of as much as $14,000 a pop.

But Mr. Trudeau and his Ontario counterparts would be sending a hostile message to the auto makers they desperately seek to lure north by siding with California over Washington on fuel standards. It's just one more reality check Mr. Trump is forcing our Liberal tag-team to make.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies