NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Evidence Doesn't Justify Higher Cafe Standards

February 13, 2002

Congress is again considering raising the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard, which requires auto manufacturers to meet certain mileage standards, as averaged across the manufacturer's entire fleet.

Advocates want to raise the current CAFE standard of 27.5 mpg for cars and 20.7 mpg for light trucks to 40 mpg for both.

They say this will increase energy "security," and reduce global warming. However, evidence suggests that raising CAFE standards will not reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and will not affect global warming.

  • Although domestic new car fuel economy has increased 114 percent since 1974, and light truck fuel economy has increased 56 percent, people are driving twice as many miles, on average, and imported oil has risen from 35 percent of U.S. consumption to more than 52 percent.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that car and light truck emissions in the U.S. make up, at most, 1.5 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions -- and raising CAFE standards to 40 mpg would reduce those vehicles' greenhouse gas output by less than one-half of 1 percent -- a negligible amount.
  • And a study by the National Academy of Sciences found that higher CAFE standards could actually be counterproductive in fighting global warming because the use of lighter-weight materials could cause "indirect energy consumption" that "could substantially offset decreases of those emissions achieved through improved fuel economy."

Additionally, there are safety concerns. Researchers at Harvard University and the Brookings Institution have found that, on average, every 100 pounds shaved off new cars to meet CAFE standards results in between 440 and 780 additional people killed in auto accidents -- a total of 2,200 to 3,900 lives lost per model year (see figure).

Source: H. Sterling Burnett, "CAFE's Three Strikes -- It Should Be Out," Brief Analysis No. 388, February 13, 2002, NCPA.

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