Aldyen Donnelly: A closer look at California’s vehicle emission standards

(Mar. 30, 2010) A recent letter from Diane Feinstein to John Kerry provides a little insight into what is currently under negotiation for a new US Senate climate change bill.

What I find quite interesting is the frequent reference to California’s vehicle emission standards as “more stringent” than US federal standards.

This requires a creative definition of “stringent”. The graph below shows that per capita road fuel consumption did realize a deeper and longer decline than the US average between 1990 and 1995. But the differential between the state and national trends appears to correlate more with the depth and length of the 1990 recession than differences between tailpipe fuel standards.

If/when we normalize the per capita road fuel trends to reflect differences in GDP trends and urbanization or population density rates, there is no evidence that California’s regulated tailpipe emission standards have outperformed the US federal standard.

In fact, given the state’s urbanization rate (which should mean lower per capita fuel consumption), it can be argued that the CA clean vehicle regulations actually under-perform the US federal regulations and that both under-perform the current Canadian regulatory context. In the graph, I show Washington state per capita road fuel consumption, where WA is a state that did not adopt the CA standards.

When we compare CA and BC per capita road fuel consumption rates, BC—without the CA tailpipe standard—appears to have the best overall performance.

Most importantly, since 2007 (when I prepared the slide below), CA statistics have eroded further. The principal issue appears to be that CA tailpipe emission regulations directly increase the price differential between new and used cars. Many families adapt to fuel price increases by extending the operating lives of older vehicles.

In 2007, when I put the graph below together, 33% of California on-road vehicles were over 10 years old, while less than 12% of BC on-road vehicles were over 10 years old.  At the end of 2009, 37% of California on-road vehicles were over 10 years old.

This is not an argument against fuel-efficient standards for vehicles. It is an argument that we must regulate “smarter” than California and should not implement exact CA vehicle emission standards into Canada. Direct implementation of CA-type standards will simply result in an extension of the road life of old vehicles and a net increase in Canadian GHG emissions.

Aldyen Donnelly, March 20, 2010

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