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Strong Fuel Economy Standards Protect the Climate and Consumer Pocketbooks

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Strong Fuel Economy Standards Protect the Climate and Consumer Pocketbooks
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By Dave Cooke and Elliott Negin

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) recent decision to roll back fuel economy standards for new cars and light trucks could slam the brakes on our nation's most successful climate initiative to date.

The next phase of the standards calls for improving the average fuel efficiency of new cars and trucks in the U.S. to about 50 miles per gallon in lab tests by 2025, which corresponds to a real-world performance of about 36 mpg. By 2030, that would avoid nearly 4 billion tons of global warming emissions, akin to shutting down 140 coal-fired power plants over that time frame.


To justify the agency's decision, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt issued a document parroting baseless claims by the main auto industry trade groups, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of Global Automakers.

Their basic, misguided argument goes like this: Low gas prices have prompted Americans to buy more gas-guzzling pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles (SUVs) in recent years than gas-sipping sedans and compacts, which means that automakers would have to install costly hybrid and electric technology in more models to meet the 50 mpg average. That, in turn, would drive up sticker prices.

In fact, the industry's own analysis concluded automakers can meet the 2025 standards without relying heavily on hybrids and plug-ins. A number of cost-effective technologies—including turbocharged engines, improved transmissions and lightweight materials—have thus far enabled automakers to meet the standards' goals at a lower cost than the industry anticipated. Indeed, new car prices have remained essentially flat when factoring in inflation, despite the fact that fuel economy has steadily improved.

At the same time, Pruitt's argument also ignores the standards' inherent flexibility. Instead of setting a single greenhouse gas emission target for an average vehicle, the current standards consider a vehicle's size and type. That ensures that automakers improve the efficiency of all models, including trucks and SUVs, while giving manufacturers flexibility in hitting their targets based on the vehicles they actually sell. No one model has to be in compliance—it's an average. Automakers are judged on whether they're improving the efficiency of the vehicles they actually sell, not whether or not they are selling a bunch of efficient econoboxes.

Remarkably, the EPA document also makes the ludicrous claim that the standards hurt consumers. In fact, the standards have already saved American car buyers more than $57 billion at the pump and would continue to save new car buyers thousands of dollars in fuel costs over the life of their vehicles. Buyers who finance their vehicles actually begin saving money as soon as they drive off the dealership lot, because the marginal cost of fuel-saving technology on their monthly payments is considerably less than the money they save on gas. These savings are even more important for low-income families, who tend to buy on the used market and spend a greater share of their transportation budget on fuel.

Finally, the EPA document fails to even mention climate change, the main reason for the standards in the first place. Strengthening fuel economy is especially imperative now, given that the transportation sector has supplanted the energy sector as the nation's leading source of carbon dioxide emissions. With Americans driving more miles than ever before, it is critical that U.S. vehicles consume less fuel to avoid the worst consequences of climate change and meet U.S. obligations under the Paris climate agreement to hold global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

The auto industry is now facing complete uncertainty, the very situation the Obama administration purposely avoided by finalizing the second-phase standards in 2017. But the industry has only itself to blame. After all, the Detroit Big Three and nearly every other automaker originally signed on to the standards, but now they are lobbying to weaken them, making the same kind of specious arguments they made whenever asked to improve safety or strengthen fuel economy in the past. And if the Trump administration ultimately rolls back the standards, the rest of us will have to bear the cost, not only by paying more at the pump but also by dealing with more extreme climate change-related impacts.

Dave Cooke is a senior vehicles analyst and Elliott Negin is a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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