President Biden moves to restore states’ ability to set strong clean car standards—a major carbon-cutting policy we helped spread

The transportation sector is America’s biggest source of carbon emissions—which makes this step a big deal.

In California, our staff helped lead the Charge Ahead coalition, which won dramatically expanded charging stations and a commitment from Gov. Gavin Newsom to eventually phase out gas-powered vehicles in the State altogether. Credit: Jonathen Davis
Morgan Hayward

Former Director, Destination: Zero Carbon, Environment America

The Biden administration just took an understated but major action on climate and air pollution

On April 26, 2021, it started the process of undoing the previous administration’s effort to block California’s authority to set stronger tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions standards than the federal government. This long-established waiver of preemption under the Clean Air Act has made it possible for more than a dozen other states to adopt the more stringent standards, too. Last year, we joined a lawsuit against the administration over it’s blocking action.

Beginning to reinstate states’ authority on clean car standards was one of our “First Things to Fix”—five consequential actions that we recommended Biden take to restore critical environmental protections in his first 100 days. 

And for good reason: Strengthening tailpipe emissions standards is among the most consequential steps that states can take to tackle global warming and air pollution.

So, what does this all mean for our air and our climate?

Stronger Clean Car Standards slash carbon emissions and make our air cleaner

There’s a good reason why, for decades, Environment America spent years running and winning campaigns for stronger auto emissions standards in the states and across the country. 

Here in the car-friendly United States, transportation is the biggest source of carbon emissions — which means that any changes to transportation emissions have a huge effect on our emissions overall. Nationally, over a quarter of all our carbon pollution comes from the way we get around, outstripping even the electricity sector. In some states that use cleaner sources of electricity, like California, it’s more like 50 percent.

Car emissions haven’t just warmed our planet; they’ve also made us sicker. Air pollution from vehicles creates illnesses that cut tens of thousands of Americans’ lives short each year. A 2019 study found that of all the U.S. deaths caused by fine particulate matter, more than a quarter were associated with transportation

Of course, those effects were amplified over the past year: For many, exposure to heavy pollution from cars and trucks has made COVID-19 symptoms worse. 

None of this is new. It was all of these harmful side effects that pushed Environment America to work to set tough standards for how polluting our cars could be in the first place. 

Our national network’s staff lobby for cleaner cars in Pennsylvania. Credit: Staff.

Standards that Environment America helped establish—and that we’ll work to expand.

Environment America and our national network have been putting our foot on the accelerator for cleaner cars for two decades.

In 2004, our staff and volunteers in California gathered 100,000 petition signatures to help pass the nation’s first clean cars bill that specifically targeted global warming pollution in the Golden State. It was a historic victory for our climate and cleaner transportation. 

But that win wasn’t just important for California. U.S. law meant that California’s new standards actually opened the door for other states to do the same thing.

So, naturally, our national network worked with our allies all across the country to convince other states to adopt California’s tougher-than-federal standards. Today, 13 states in all, plus Washington, D.C., have adopted the rules, representing a quarter of all Americans.

Eventually, the pressure from below led to federal action. In 2009, we helped convince the Obama administration to adopt strong national standards.

Over the past decade, we’ve pushed for the continuous strengthening of these national standards, and took the Trump administration to court when they tried to pass weaker ones. All the while, we won more victories in the states to incentivize electric and low-emission vehicles and more public transit.

Our staff rally against the Trump administration’s proposed changes to federal clean car standards. Credit: TJO photography

What’s next?

Fixing the mistakes of the previous administration on car and truck pollution is just the beginning.

We know that, in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change, America needs to make fundamental changes to the way we get around.

We also know that every ton of vehicle-generated particulate matter we get out of our air means fewer health problems, fewer hospital visits and cleaner cities.

We can and must go further. To create a cleaner and healthier America, the Biden administration should take steps to incentivize electric vehicle adoption and to strengthen our national Clean Car standards. 

We’ll continue to urge the administration to take these steps, all while working in the states to win action at the local level.


Morgan Hayward

Former Director, Destination: Zero Carbon, Environment America

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