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US Car Emissions Rollback Endangers People’s Health

Cuts to Environmental Standards Exacerbate Risks of COVID-19

Cars are seen on highway 101 in Palo Alto, California, September 17, 2019. © 2019 Yichuan Cao/Sipa via AP Images

United States President Donald Trump’s announcement of dramatically reduced fuel efficiency standards for new vehicles, a move expected to lead to increased air pollution and emission of billions of tons more greenhouse gases, is the latest in a series of attacks on environmental protection since Trump took office. These have included the rollback of dozens of laws and regulations designed to protect the environment and human health.

For example, late last week, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that for an indefinite period of time it would not enforce monitoring and reporting requirements of many environmental regulations if the company can show a COVID-19 related reason for non-compliance.

Both of these policies will bring added harm to human health, with no meaningful justification.

The EPA policy means that most reporting requirements for companies polluting air and water will not be enforced. This means communities will not know what is discharged into the air they breathe.

The rollback of fuel standards will almost certainly have devastating impacts on efforts to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions. It is expected to lead to one trillion more tons of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere which is equivalent to 20 percent of US total annual emissions or more than the total annual emissions of Canada. This comes at a time when it is critical that global emissions are dramatically reduced to meet the goals of the Paris agreement.

It will almost certainly harm air quality, and air pollution is responsible for a number of respiratory, cardiovascular, and other health issues in the US. People infected with COVID-19 and living in communities with high levels of air pollution may also face higher risks of severe disease or death, as during the 2003 SARS epidemic, during which people who breathed dirtier air were about twice as likely to die from the infection. Air pollution causes more than 200,000 premature deaths in the US every year.   

The EPA’s overbroad policy offered no explanation as to why COVID-19 restrictions would impact monitoring or reporting. Nor did it justify the indefinite timing for the suspension of these requirements.

The rollback of fuel efficiency standards is even more arbitrary, and inconsistent with the position of the auto industry, which has advocated for improved, not lower, standards, in part because of “shifting market conditions and consumer preferences.”

Lower fuel efficiency vehicles will bring increased fuel consumption, which stands to benefit the fossil fuel industry.

In the midst of such a horrendous public health emergency, the US should be using all tools available to protect people’s health, instead of taking steps that undermine it.

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