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The Conversation: Will cheap gas at the pump stall progress on car emissions?

Retail gasoline prices are now as low as they were in the “roaring ‘90s.” The 1990s, that is, when the energy crisis of the 1970s had faded from American consumers’ memories, the economy was strong and the market share of sport utility vehicles (SUVs) had more than tripled over the decade.

As in the 1990s, low-cost gasoline is changing consumers’ habits, encouraging them to drive more and purchase less fuel-efficient vehicles. What’s different now is that U.S. automakers face far more stringent fuel-economy standards. The rules, which require automakers to have a fleet-wide, on-road average of roughly 40 miles per gallon by 2025, are the country’s primary policy for reducing carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions from motor vehicles.

However, fuel prices have plummeted since these rules were put in place. What does cheap gasoline mean for the country’s progress in reducing emissions?

To answer this question, we need to look at the interplay between gas prices and consumer behavior. We also need to consider the impact that technology and policy can have – and cannot have – on reducing emissions from motor vehicles.

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