The United States served notice yesterday that it finally intends to take firm action to combat the planet's climate crisis, announcing unprecedented plans to regulate vehicle emissions from 2012 with exhaust standards that match those sought for years by California and a handful of other states.
Unveiling the new plan, surrounded by car executives from the US, Japan and Europe, President Barack Obama left no one in doubt that he means to make good on his campaign promises to drag his country out of years of lethargy and inaction on climate protection.
"The status quo is no longer acceptable," President Obama declared, standing in the White House rose garden. "We have done little to increase the fuel efficiency of America's cars and trucks for decades. This is unprecedented change."
The measures are the result of weeks of behind-closed-doors negotiation. If successfully enacted, they will reshape a car industry that is already trying to wean itself from its past gas-guzzling instincts and promise to make the American fleet 40 per cent cleaner and more fuel efficient than it is today.
Importantly, all sides have given their support to the package and will drop any related lawsuits. Although the standards impose new challenges on the car industry at a time of great economic strain, having certainty about what will be expected from it going forward was enough to buy its support.
With so many officials and industry executives around him, Mr Obama was clearly also firing across the bows of Congress, where his signature climate change bill that includes provisions for a controversial cap-and-trade system for industry emissions is likely to face formidable opposition. "This is staggering," said the governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger after hearing Mr Obama speak. "This president after 120 days in office has taken the action and pulled everyone together. We are ecstatic."
The proposed programme would cover the period 2012-2016 with the goal of achieving a standard of 35.5 miles per gallon across the fleet. Officials said that this will save 1.8 billion barrels of oil, equivalent to taking 58 million cars off the road in the US for an entire year. It would also instruct the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate car exhaust emissions for the first time.
Among those applauding the plan are environmental groups. "Few actions could have a more profound impact in the fight against global warming," commented Bill Becker, leader of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. "After an initial phase-in, every new vehicle sold in every state in the country will be required to meet California's clean-car greenhouse gas standards."
Officials conceded that the tough regulations will add an average of $600 (£387) to the cost of a new car but contended that the savings in fuel purchases would cancel out the extra cost within three years. "The fact is, everyone wins," the President insisted.
For years, California fought with the Bush White House for the right to set its own standards for vehicle emissions. The proposals, which were supported by other states including New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, triggered lawsuits from the car industry in Detroit, and the Bush administration was consistent in opposing California's initiatives. As part of this new deal, the state has agreed in advance to defer to Washington henceforth on emissions standards.
Climate change is one of many priorities for the new President and will have to compete with healthcare reform for his attention. He knows that his green agenda may be in particular peril on Capitol Hill because opinion polls continue to show that tackling global warming and energy wastage is one of the lowest priorities for an American public that is far more concerned with a return to economic prosperity.
"Ending our dependence on fossil fuels represents perhaps the most difficult challenge we have ever faced," President Obama said. "Ending this dependence will take time, will take incredible effort, will take historic innovation. More than anything else it will take a willingness to look past our differences."
The President added that the oil which would be saved by the policy is equivalent to the US's imports for an entire year from Saudi Arabia, Libya, Venezuela and Nigeria combined.
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