OPINION: Why ‘Goldilocks’ tailpipe emission standards are not enough

Responding to President Biden’s announcement earlier this month of new tailpipe emissions standards, Michigan Congressman Dan Kildee offered a strange kind of praise: “This is sort of a Goldilocks goal… Not too much, not too little. It’s just right.” But Biden and Kildee are both living in a fairytale if they think these milquetoast standards are sufficient to meet this moment. 

This summer, Detroiters have caught more than a whiff of the climate crisis that is our new normal. Relentless heat and recurring flooding and power outages have piled trauma on top of the ordinary hardship of economic insecurity. The cost of replacing the vehicles, furnaces, and other lost belongings and remediating flooded and moldering basements will be immense. Some have been displaced from their homes altogether, and many more are likely to experience health impacts from lingering mold and sewage, which are especially dangerous for those already made vulnerable by asthma, COVID, and other diseases.     

Since transportation emissions are the largest source of US climate pollution, strong clean car standards (not to mention significant investments in equitable transit infrastructure) are essential and must be commensurate with the climate emergency we are experiencing right now. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—called a “code red for humanity” by UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres—only underscores this reality. We have a short time to cut global emissions by half in order to have a shot at limiting—not reversing—climate disaster.

What’s more, research from MIT finds that auto emissions are the largest contributor to pollution-caused premature death by sector, outpacing even power generation. Here in Detroit, the highways that decimated thriving Black neighborhoods and business districts in the mid-twentieth century are enduring monuments to racism.

Those displaced and their descendants were robbed of community and generational wealth, while those now living near the highways’ footprint suffer from particulate matter and ozone-related health impacts. The American Lung Association reports that these impacts can be wide-ranging: from asthma, heart disease, and cancer, to allergies, diabetes, and cognitive decline. 

The tailpipe emissions standards Biden proposed are full of loopholes and rely on voluntary commitments from the automakers to make their fleets 50% electric by the end of the decade. Given that these same automakers got an $80 billion government bailout in 2009, agreed to stronger emissions reductions targets under Obama, and then swiftly reneged on their commitment when the political winds changed, why should we rely on the voluntary commitments of corporations—accountable only to their shareholders—now?

We at Michigan Interfaith Power & Light envision a world where communities thrive, have abundant health, and live in right relationship with each other and the earth that sustains us.  We organize in the faith community to bring a moral voice and a perspective that centers those experiencing the greatest injustice, who too often have little voice, into conversations about public policy.

That’s why we helped gather signatures from religious and spiritual leaders from around the country on a letter to President Biden and EPA Administrator Michael Regan calling for the strongest possible vehicle emission standards to meet this moment. We’re asking for a 2030 standard for cars and light-duty trucks that reduces greenhouse gas emissions to 60% below today’s average and to make all new trucks and buses zero emissions by 2040. We are calling for all cars and light-duty trucks to be zero emissions by 2035, which will require at least 60% to be zero emissions by 2030. 

In spite of the significant climate impacts we are already experiencing, many of our elected leaders appear to believe that a moderate, “not too much, not too little” policy is the best path forward. This lack of vision, lack of boldness, is already costing us an untold number of lives and so much suffering, most especially among Black, brown, and low-wealth communities. The draft clean cars proposal can be a moral opportunity.

We have, in front of us, a chance to respond to the cry of our communities and the cry of the earth, and follow the science, and to move rapidly to make the emissions reductions we know are necessary. It is possible and it can be done in a way that is beneficial to us in Michigan, to our country, and to the world. The current proposal falls dangerously short. We urge people of faith and conscience to speak up as the EPA comment period on the clean cars rule is open through September 27th. 


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