The New Auto Fuel-Efficiency Standards — Going Beyond the Headlines

On My 19th, 2009, President Obama announced new Federal fuel-efficiency standards for motor-vehicles that would make the current standards — known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy — or CAFE — standards significantly more stringent. These CAFE standards measure compliance as the average of a company’s entire fleet of cars, and so are more flexible and less costly than model-by-model standards, better matching consumer preferences and lowering production costs.

Other good news is that the administration’s proposal will yield a single standard nationwide, rather than two fuel efficiency standards, one for California and the 13 other states that chose to follow its more stringent Pavley standards, and another standard for the rest of the country under the existing CAFE program.  The result would have been that the states adopting the more stringent California standard would have brought about little incremental benefit for the environment beyond the national CAFE program, because auto manufacturers and importers would have largely undone the effects of the more stringent state-level fuel-efficiency requirements by selling more of the less fuel-efficient models in their fleets in the non-Pavley states.  This has been validated in an interesting research paper by Lawrence Goulder (Stanford University), Mark Jacobsen (University of California, San Diego), and Arthur van Benthem (Stanford University).  Thus, dual standards would have increased costs, but with little or no additional benefit to the environment.

These new Federal standards proposed by the Obama administration can therefore be one small step along the path to meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. That’s the good news. But it’s also true that the new standards are inferior to other possible approaches.

First of all, CAFE affects only the cars we buy, not how much we drive them, and so CAFE standards are less cost-effective than gasoline prices at reducing gasoline consumption, because gas prices (whether reflecting market conditions or government taxes) affect both which cars we buy and our choices about driving.

Some people may think that CAFE standards — unlike gas taxes — are costless for consumers. But according to the administration, the increases in CAFE standards (including both scheduled increases already on the books and the new Obama proposal) will add — on average — $1,300 to the cost of producing a new car.

Because CAFE standards increase the price of new cars, the standards have the unintentional effect of keeping older — dirtier and less fuel-efficient — cars on the road longer.  This counterproductive effect is typical of any vintage-differentiated-regulation, a topic which I have addressed in a previous post.  There is abundant empirical research on this issue.

Also, by decreasing the cost per mile of driving, CAFE standards — like any energy-efficiency technology standard — exhibit a “rebound effect,” namely, people have an incentive to drive more, not less, thereby lessening the anticipated reduction in gasoline usage.  This has also been documented empirically.

The bottom line is that gasoline prices are a much more effective – and more cost-effective – means of cutting gasoline demand, both in the short term and the long term. But if increasing gasoline prices through gas taxes is politically impossible – which certainly appears to be the case in the current political climate – why raise all of these objections? Am I allowing the (infeasible) perfect to be the enemy of the good? Not at all, as I will explain.

There is, in fact, another policy instrument available that has the same desirable impacts as gas taxes on gasoline prices (and, more importantly, on all other fossil fuel prices, as well), but inspires dramatically less political opposition.  And this instrument is not only politically feasible, but is right now achieving remarkable, broad-based political support in Washington. I’m talking about the economy-wide CO2 cap-and-trade system in Congressmen Waxman and Markey’s legislation in the House of Representatives. Their cap-and-trade system will serve to increase the price of gasoline, cut demand, and reduce emissions.  But, in addition, its impacts will go far beyond automobiles and trucks, and beyond the transportation sector, as well.

To seriously and cost-effectively address climate change, it is essential to put in place a single carbon price that affects all fossil fuels and all uses throughout the economy — not only in the transportation sector, but also electric power, and the manufacturing, commercial, and residential sectors. This is precisely what cap-and-trade does.  A meaningful, upstream, economy-wide cap-and-trade system will serve to increase the price of gasoline, as well as other fuels, electricity, and all goods and services in proportion to their carbon-intensity in production, and it does this (as would a carbon tax) in the right proportions for each fuel, energy source, and product, so that the overall cap is achieved at the least possible cost.  The real bottom line is that cap-and-trade is the cheapest, best, and only politically feasible approach that can achieve the significant reductions in CO2 emissions that will be necessary to meet President Obama’s ambitious climate goals.

Back to the Obama administration’s CAFE proposal, a separate and distinct question is what will the effects be on the U.S. automobile industry?  Will this be “good for the auto industry,” as the White House press release claimed?  Doesn’t the presence of so many leading auto executives on the podium with the President clearly indicate that this regulatory change is good for the U.S. auto industry?

First, it is surely the case that a single national standard is better for the auto industry – and society more broadly – than the dual system that would have been brought about by the 14 Pavley states going forward with more stringent standards.  There’s nothing new about the U.S. auto industry wanting a single national standard.  Indeed, for this reason, the industry supported the enactment of Federal clean air legislation in the 1970s.  We all prefer bad news to worse news, but that does not mean we welcome the bad news or that’s it good for us.

It’s also true that the U.S. auto industry has vastly less political clout now than it has had in decades, plus a much smaller share of the U.S. automobile market.  The industry is in severe economic decline, indeed on the verge of bankruptcy, and it is depending now on massive government handouts.  In this climate, it is hardly surprising that the U.S. auto industry is being exceptionally cooperative with the Federal government.

But is this policy in the long-term interest of the U.S. auto industry; is this “good for the U.S. auto industry?”  The answer to that question is unknown.  Keep in mind that for decades the U.S. auto manufacturers have just barely complied with CAFE standards each year, while Japanese manufacturers and importers have exceeded the standards.  So, at first blush, it would appear that it may be easier — less costly — for Japanese companies than U.S. companies to meet the heightened fuel-efficiency standards.  I’m not saying that the new standards will put the U.S. companies out of business, but simply that we don’t know at this point what the long-term impacts will be.  In my view, one should be skeptical about claims to the contrary.  As I’ve suggested in previous posts, the best reason to carry out environmental policies is that they are expected to be good for the environment..

Author: Robert Stavins

Robert N. Stavins is the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government, Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs, and Director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.