As countries try to slash air pollution and step up action on climate change, many are looking at a key culprit: tailpipes.
India in 2016 put into effect its first fuel-economy standards for passenger vehicles and by 2021 is expected to have lowered planet-warming carbon emissions from new vehicles by 30 percent.
Mexico similarly launched pioneering regulations to cut emissions in 2014, focused on reducing pollution from its millions of vehicles.
Supporting those efforts — and dozens of other cleaner air standards worldwide — is a quiet group of engineers few have heard of, but whose efforts could help decarbonize the global transport sector by the middle of the century.
The Washington-based International Council on Clean Transportation — which on Thursday won a US$1.5 million prize from the Skoll Foundation — gathers and crunches data to give countries the ammunition they need to draw up effective policies, council executive director Drew Kodjak said.
However, what the council might be best known for is discovering — as its engineers tried to make sense of unusually high diesel pollution levels in tests — that Volkswagen had installed an emissions “defeat device” on millions of its vehicles.
The software, which let vehicles pass emissions tests and then produce vastly more nitrogen oxide pollution on the road, eventually led to a US$2.8 billion fine by a US judge in 2017, and an embarrassing admission of guilt by Volkswagen officials.
“The ripple effects are still being felt,” Kodjak said, with Europe, for example, passing new regulations to rein in pollution from diesel vehicles.
Besides providing data, the council also guides bureaucrats through the long and often politically arduous slog of introducing tougher policies, and links them with colleagues in other places to share expertise.
Since 2013, the group has helped drive the creation of more than 20 major national rules, from China to Brazil, to cut climate-changing emissions from vehicles, Kodjak said.
When fully implemented by 2030, those would reduce carbon emissions from the global transport sector by 2.4 gigatonnes per year, or about 25 percent of its emissions today, council calculations showed.
“Most people think of [the US] Congress enacting laws, or the president signing an order,” the environmental lawyer said.
However, most of the real work happens in agencies tasked with turning laws — such as the US Clean Air Act — into a reality, he said.
“Data is the primary currency,” Kodjak said. “Data and good analysis, this is what drives things.”
The council got its start after Michael Walsh, a US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official working on vehicle emissions, resigned because former US president Ronald Reagan’s administration reversed policies he had fought for.
Walsh then began consulting with countries from Europe to Japan to help them adopt policies for cleaner fuels and vehicles.
Along the way, he developed an informal global network of officials who were passionate about emissions reductions and the environment — eventually leading to the creation of the council.
“They were really dealing with the same issues, and the same global industries of automobiles and oil — but there was no forum to let them share experiences, trade information and discuss strategy,” said Kodjak, a former US EPA attorney.
At the start, the council — which now has offices in Washington, Beijing, Berlin and San Francisco — focused mainly on cutting air pollution, in part by cleaning up fuels, but by 2008, it was addressing climate change, too.
In Mexico, over several years, the council helped gather data on every vehicle in the country, new and old, and analyzed auto makers’ plans and potential imports, former Mexican deputy minister of the environment Rodolfo Lacy said.
The data collection allowed Mexico to design a cutting-edge regulation, and get it past politicians and manufacturers, he said by telephone.
“I was able to pass the first carbon dioxide climate regulation in my country thanks to their help,” said Lacy, now director of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Environment Directorate.
Efforts to cut emissions are happening too slowly, especially with studies by the council estimating the health impacts of global transport emissions at US$1 trillion per year from 2010 to 2015, Kodjak said.
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