Photo: AP

On Tuesday, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt announced his intent to weaken fuel economy standards with a bunch of auto industry reps there to cheer him on, because of course.

The move, and the possibility that noted states right lover Pruitt could revoke California’s waiver that allows it set more stringent vehicle emissions standards, has all the billings of a national litigious mess, given that a dozen states have also adopted California’s standard, and a bunch of attorneys general and mayors are already pissed. But the imbroglio could also put a further damper on climate action, both in the U.S. and internationally. A number of countries rely on the U.S. or California to set their standards, meaning Pruitt’s move could have knock-on effects that cause auto emissions to rise—or at least not fall fast enough—in other parts of the world.

“Currently, a number of countries, including Canada, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico base their standards off of the U.S.,” Kate Whitefoot, an engineer at Carnegie Mellon, told Earther. “So, if the U.S. weakens the regulations, these other countries may follow suit.”

Automakers may also use Pruitt’s decision to lobby for weaker emissions standards elsewhere in the world. International Council on Clean Transportation researcher Anup Bandivadekar told the New York Times that lawmakers in the European Union—which currently has the strictest fuel economy standards in the world—are likely to face resistance to more ambitious standards under consideration.

This comes at a time when not just the U.S. but the world needs to be more proactive about addressing climate change, not less. The Obama-era U.S. standards would’ve required cars and light trucks to get 55.2 miles per gallon (mpg), a move that would have saved about 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions if fully implemented. With Pruitt’s decision, at least some of those savings are unlikely to be realized. And what’s worse is it could inspire other countries to do less, or give automakers more incentive to fight stricter regulations.

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Transportation accounts for 14 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to Pruitt’s own EPA.  

“The benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions are shared globally, whereas the costs of regulation are local, so it’s important that countries cooperate to reduce emissions together,” Jeremy Michalek, a transportation researcher at Carnegie Mellon, told Earther. “That was a key aspect of the Paris climate accord.”

But, well, we all know how Pruitt and his boss feel about the Paris Agreement.

Of course, another country may wind up setting the tone. China is the largest car market in the world, with a quarter of the 90 million cars sold last year sold there (about 19 percent were sold in the U.S. for comparison). The Chinese government has set a fuel efficiency target of 47.7 mpg by 2020, and included a strong mandate for electric vehicles. It got the idea from California’s mandates, according to Salim Morsy, an analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

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“There’s been a large amount of cooperation between the Chinese delegation and California regulators for the past few years,” Morsy told Earther. “The head of the California Air Resources Board is often called most important regulator in the world because both the Chinese standards and federal CAFE standards kind of mimicked what’s going on in California, [but] what’s driving the car market in China is largely its own consideration of competitive advantage in global car market.”

Pruitt’s effort to roll back standards mirrors much of the Trump administration’s America First vision, that seems to cede global leadership on climate and clean energy China. From the Paris Agreement to the Clean Power Plan to solar tariffs to cars now, it seems like the desire to turn back the clock will leave the U.S. in a place where outside forces will dictate what comes next for the country. Those forces are already at work, with the cost of batteries rapidly dropping, more electric vehicle choices than ever popping up, and a growth curve primed to increase exponentially.

“We’re almost at a point of no return with cost of batteries,” Morsy said with regards to electric vehicles. “The global battery industry is not hanging on EPA’s words.”

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Or as Whitefoot put it, “if the U.S. weakens its federal vehicle regulations, it may lose its leadership in setting these policies, but the automakers will still need to push ahead with technological developments to meet future vehicle energy policies around the world.”