Green America? Lessons from the US on laws and enforcement

By Jos Dings, T&E executive director

America is no green saint. An American emits more than twice the carbon of a European. Per head Americans also use more than twice as much oil for transport as Europeans do – mostly because five Americans own as many vehicles as eight Europeans and many of their vehicles don’t even fit in European garages. They send more than three times as much household waste to landfills. And so on.

Still, last week we organised an event that demonstrated that they can teach us some lessons. Margo Oge, the fearless ex-boss of the Office for Transportation and Air Quality of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA OTAQ for acronym lovers), came over to speak. Why fearless? Because she pushed through stringent air pollution rules for trucks under the Bush administration – the same administration which defiantly withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol as one of its first acts of foreign policy.

One lesson she taught was on truck fuel efficiency and CO2 standards. The EPA prepared and finalised the rule in 18 months, starting from nothing. Compare that with Europe. The Commission has been preparing a system to label trucks with a CO2 number since 2009. A proposal to start monitoring is to come early in 2017, with adoption possibly in late 2018 and first data collection around 2020. This means a proposal for standards would come in, say, 2023, with adoption by 2025, and entry into force 2030 or so. That’s 20 years – obviously a completely unacceptable time lag. And Ms Oge said exactly that – that the idea that we would need a few more years of data collection before setting standards is a ‘red herring’.

Another was on enforcement – quite a relevant topic after Dieselgate. The mandate of the EPA is clear – it has the authority for random checking of vehicles and attaching consequences to the findings. And it is not hesitating to use this mandate. Compare this with Europe where enforcement of laws is always left to member states – until disaster strikes and we figure out that political protection of national champions has left massive bills to society. Banks were the protected lot in 2008-9, carmakers are today’s. Despite the fact that Jaguar can, and does, choose the UK, Mercedes Germany and Renault France as its regulator of choice, the countries concerned, of course, deny any politicking and explain their pussyfooting around by referring to the supposed vagueness of EU legal texts. (Though credit where it’s due: France has been a noteworthy exception in its constructiveness in the ongoing negotiations on type approval reform.) The consequences are far reaching: this sort of cynical blame game is grist to the mill of Brexiteers and friends. Ms Oge advised a fix that is both simple and effective: establish one ultimate regulator and give it the necessary toolbox to act. Exactly our take.

Of course, some of the differences between the US and EU are more legal than cultural and reflect the difference between a nation and a loose federation of nations that is the EU. But it has to be said that a lot is cultural too. Laws and their enforcement are serious business in the US and, ultimately, only effective laws can protect this planet that we all share. May the UK vote wisely and Commission staff take note – and maybe one day we can go and tell the Americans that their wasteful ways may have to change a bit too.


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