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Join our work today to help us build a thriving and just clean energy future. 

Evergreen Explains: EPA’s Clean Cars Rule

EPA just proposed a new light-duty vehicle standard. Here’s why it matters for climate, environmental justice, and public health.

An overhead freeway message warns drivers of poor air quality in St. Paul, Minnesota. © 2015 MPCA Photos/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0


Update: In March 2024, the Biden administration announced its final clean car standards for light-duty vehicles model year 2027 and beyond. This announcement marks a huge win for climate and public health and sets the stage for a majority of cars, SUVs, and small trucks sold in the U.S. to be all-electric or hybrids by 2032.



Transportation is the most polluting sector in the U.S. And light-duty vehicles—like cars and SUVs—make up the largest share of that pollution, contributing a whopping 57 percent of the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. And that pollution spewing out of car exhaust pipes isn’t just accelerating climate change; it’s literally killing us. That’s because cars and trucks don’t just emit carbon dioxide. They also release co-pollutants like particulate matter and nitrogen oxides that create a lethal form of air pollution: smog. This is linked to a slew of health problems including heart and lung disease, asthma, and cardiovascular disease, leading to thousands of premature deaths every year

Addressing pollution from light-duty vehicles will not only help us tackle climate change but also improve the health of our communities. And the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) not only has a tool to do this, but one that has a proven track record of success.

Meet the light-duty vehicle standard, also known as the multi-pollutant emission standard. Since 1975, EPA has regulated soot and smog forming pollution—and in 2010, EPA began regulating greenhouse gas pollution from vehicles too, using this standard. EPA just proposed their new multi-pollutant emission standards for cars in model year 2027-2032 earlier this week, which will help reduce soot, smog, and greenhouse gas pollution from cars. The proposed light-duty vehicle multi-pollutant emission standards for 2027-2032 are the strongest passenger vehicle standards EPA has ever put forward. An ambitious standard that will encourage auto makers to produce more EVs—likely surpassing the administration's goal to have half of all new car sales be EVs by 2030.


What are light-duty vehicle standards and why do they matter?

The more efficient a vehicle, the less greenhouse gas pollution it emits and the farther it goes on a single tank of gas, saving people money and improving the air we breathe. With the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, EPA began regulating emission standards set for light-duty vehicles, and in 1975 these emission standards took effect. EPA began setting standards to address greenhouse gas pollution from vehicles in 2010, which manufacturers had to start taking into account in 2012. Since then, EPA has increasingly ratcheted up the emissions reduction standard every four years through these light-duty vehicle rules, passing the baton to automakers to decide how to adjust the manufacturing of the car to meet these higher standards each year. Regulation of light duty vehicles has resulted in a 99 percent reduction in carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and particulate matter pollution in the past 48 years. 

Infographic stating the transportation sector accounts for 27% of all U.S. climate pollution. 57% of transportation pollution comes from cars and light-duty trucks.

Transportation is the most polluting sector in the U.S. Light-duty vehicles—like cars and SUVs—make up the largest share of that pollution.

By regulating the amount of soot, smog, and greenhouse gas pollution from cars, EPA has pushed manufacturers to make cars cleaner over time. This means, if you buy a newer car, it will be better for the environment (even if it’s powered by fossil fuels) because older cars, bound by older emission standards, were allowed to pollute more than newer ones. Car manufacturers can meet the industry-wide emissions standard by producing more electric vehicles (EVs), which have zero tailpipe emissions. With passenger vehicles making up such a big share of greenhouse gas pollution and a growing interest in EVs, EPA must set strong standards to make more EVs available to consumers.


What’s our progress toward hitting our climate and public health goals?

President Biden set a goal to reduce greenhouse gas pollution economy-wide by 50-52 percent by 2030. To meet this goal, the administration needs to address the largest source of climate pollution: transportation. Transitioning to EVs will be a big part of the solution, with 60 percent of new car sales expected to be EVs by 2030.

The good thing is that investments in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) support an accelerated adoption of EVs. The IRA has incentives for both manufacturers—credits for manufacturing cars in the U.S. and with responsibly sourced materials—and for individuals—to lower prices. Combined, these incentives support a rapid transition to EVs, which is better for the climate and our lungs. Because older cars aren't required to conform to the new lower-polluting standards, it is all the more important that these forward-looking standards are as stringent as possible. 

Watch the explainer: What Are President Biden's New Clean Cars Rules?

Ambitious light-duty vehicle standards go hand-in-hand with advancing environmental justice.

Reducing pollution from vehicles is an environmental justice issue. Tailpipe pollution disproportionately affects communities of color and low-income communities, who often live and work near highways, industrial, or heavily-trafficked areas due to decades of discriminatory housing policies and infrastructure investments that displaced and separated communities of color. This has meant that low-income and communities of color correspondingly suffer from greater rates of asthma, cancer, lung and heart disease caused by these pollutants. 

Strong pollution reduction standards translate into cleaner air for these communities, many of whom do not have access to purchase new lower-polluting vehicles themselves, and therefore rely on strong standards to reduce vehicle emissions overall. 


So, what comes next?

EPA just proposed standards for cars in model year 2027-2032. When finalized, these rules will only go into effect for cars that are sold four years from now, meaning the final decision—expected to be made by spring 2024—will seriously impact our ability to transition towards a zero-emission economy in the near future. 

This deadline is right around the corner, meaning any delays in the process could make the rule vulnerable to a final rule not being complete before President Biden’s first term ends. EPA’s worrisome track record of moving slowly and missing self-imposed deadlines only raises the stakes. This timeline also aligns with the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which warns that the world is on track to exceed the 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) threshold, at least temporarily, in the first half of the 2030s. But it is still possible to shift course: the action EPA takes now to address the most polluting sector of our economy can impact whether the U.S. can meet our future climate goals.  

Fortunately, EPA’s proposed light-duty multi-pollutant emissions rule for 2027-2032 meets the need to address both climate pollution and public health concerns by advancing the most ambitious standards yet. In particular, by focusing on reducing criteria pollutants, which cause soot and smog, EPA is affirming previous commitments to prioritize addressing environmental justice concerns and communities overburdened by vehicle pollution. This rule, when finalized, will reduce particulate matter pollution, which EPA estimates will significantly limit health impacts such as lung and heart diseases. 

These rules will go into effect in 2027, but will continue delivering benefits through 2055, given how long passenger vehicles can stay on the road. Over the life of the vehicles produced in 2027 and beyond, these rules will avoid up to 7.3 billion tons of carbon—the equivalent of removing all U.S. transportation emissions for four years. And while manufacturers get to choose how they will meet this proposed standard, EPA estimates that this rule would lead to 67 percent of new light-duty vehicle sales being EVs by 2023. This is a huge leap forward, and one that matches the level of ambition that Americans have to buy EVs. At the end of 2021 just over 3 percent of all new car sales were EVs, but by the end of 2022 that number nearly doubled. This strong rule paired with the IRA incentives for buying and manufacturing EVs will help keep the U.S. within reach of our climate commitments and advance environmental justice. 

Sign up now to get critical action alerts and be the first to know when public comments open for these rules. We’ll send you a rapid response update on exactly how you can let EPA know that we need ambitious standards for light-duty vehicles.