Global harmonization of emissions standards: a (tail) pipe dream?

The world’s mobility engineers are responsible for an amazing success story over the past 200 or so years. From 1800 to 2000, while the world’s population grew six-fold and global GDP grew one-hundred-fold, personal mobility measured in kilometers/person grew one-thousand-fold.

Personal mobility is nothing more than personal freedom. That meant so many more people won the freedom to go where they want, when they want, with whom they want. And that growth continues today. In many small villages across Asia, the purchase of a family’s new car, whatever its condition, can be the cause for celebrations. The automobile is still something that is coveted by so many.

That success story, however, came with a hidden cost: pollution from tailpipe emissions. The West began to appreciate the health impacts of tailpipe emissions in the 50’s and 60’s. A new word was invented – “smog” – as it blanketed cities like Los Angeles. Other cities around the world like London suffered too.

The modern environmental regulations adopted by the U.S., Europe, and Japan initially focused on conventional pollution—e.g., carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, and particulates. The auto industry delivered once again with innovations like the catalytic converter that helped reduce conventional emissions by over 90% over the last 40+ years.

Sadly, the job was not done. As we managed to conquer conventional pollution in the West, there were two new developments. First, scientists began to realize that the carbon being burned and exhausted into the atmosphere was contributing to a rapidly escalating “greenhouse effect” and triggering climate change.  Second, Asia began to industrialize, and counties there started to see their cities blanketed with smog in the same way the west had experienced 40-50 years ago.

So today we are in a new era of emissions reduction. The west is tackling greenhouse gas emissions (GHG)—often expressed as CO2 emissions—which is closely linked to the fuel efficiency of vehicles. And Asia, is dealing with both—catching up with the West in reducing conventional pollution while at the same time tackling greenhouse gas emissions, a doubly difficult proposition.

The transport sector is responsible for about a quarter of all anthropogenic CO2 emissions. In the West the proportion is higher, and in the developing world it is lower. The world’s fleet is about 1.2 billion vehicles, with autos and light vehicles dominating it. Interestingly, heavy-duty vehicles represent only about 11% of the world total, but are responsible for about one half of CO2 emissions.

One of the legacies of the last 40-50 years is the fact that each country developed its own regulations independent of the other, at different times and with different milestones. The U.S. was an early player, with the U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) being established under President Nixon in 1972. The Clean Air Act of 1975 and its updated 1990 version became the law of the land. Corporate average fuel economy standards (CAFE) came into existence in 1975 under NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration)—not to fight emissions, but to address energy security. The two separate laws co-exist today in the form of the combined 2025 light duty GHG/CAFE standards that were implemented in 2012, the first national standards for GHG reduction.

Regulations in Europe and Japan came later, in the 1980s. As recently as 1990, only 12% of European cars had catalytic converters whereas a vast majority of the cars on U.S. roads were equipped with them. Japan implemented standards in the late ‘80s as well, remaining somewhat relaxed into the 1990s.

But, a new age is dawning today. By the early 2020s (between 2020 and 2025), the emissions standards for conventional pollution and GHG emissions are converging around the major economies of the world. U.S., China, EU, Japan, Korea, Canada, Australia are all targeting the ~100± grams/km range. Other economies like Brazil, Mexico, India, and South Africa are planning to establish theirs. Though the targets are converging, the requirements are still very different.

The G20 meeting held in Brisbane, Australia, in November 2014 was a catalyst for further collaboration among the countries. In the Energy Efficiency Action Plan, the stated objective for motor vehicles is for the participating countries to work together on emissions reduction, energy performance, and more. The more recent Paris Climate accords added to the momentum.

It is early to tell how this will all play out, as the cooperation is voluntary. Yet, can we not imagine that at some point in time the government policymakers and the industry will find common ground in harmonized global standards? Today the responsibility for that lies with an organization that few even have heard about. It is the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), which has a Sustainable Transport Division. That division provides secretariat services to the World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations (WP29) and has been doing so for more than 50 years.

The Working Party on Pollution and Energy (GRPE) is the subsidiary body that prepares regulatory proposals on pollution and energy efficiency to WP 29. This group of experts conducts research and analysis to develop emissions and energy requirements for vehicles. GRPE accepts only country representatives at the table and is driven by government regulatory agendas. As SAE standards and test procedures are referenced directly in approximately 100 U.S. federal regulations covering emissions and fuel economy testing, the EPA participates at the WP29 level as a U.S. representative.

Progress to date has been slow. But that does not mean it has to continue to be so. The industry is interested and the regulators have to keep moving forward. So does SAE. Historically, SAE has held “observer” status at the WP29 forums, but is currently an applicant with the United Nations NGO Branch for Consultative Status to WP 29.

As the various world players band together to formulate plans for meeting fuel-efficiency and emissions challenges, SAE must plan to be part of a more harmonized future. The world will be a better place.