Emissions Standards

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Emissions Standards


Emissions standards refer to legislated limits on the concentrations of a number of compounds that can be released into the air. As an example, the United States, Europe, and Asia have standards governing the release of compounds from the exhaust of gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles.

There are emissions standards for a number of other air-polluting sources including industries (the standards depend on the particular industry) and power plants, such as those that burn coal to generate electricity. In the United States, proposed standards will govern lawn mowers and recreational watercraft.

Emissions standards are primarily concerned with compounds that are associated with respiratory difficulties from breathing polluted air, and greenhouse gases—compounds that increase the retention of heat by the atmosphere and which are the main factor in the warming of Earth’s atmosphere that has occurred since the mid-eighteenth century, and which has been accelerating since the mid-twentieth century.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

The compounds typically regulated by emissions standards are nitrogen (N2), nitrous oxides (nitrogen oxide, NO, and nitrogen dioxide, NO2), sulfur oxides, particulate matter, carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), and carbon containing compounds that can vaporize in the air (volatile hydrocarbons).

Particulate matter refers to particles of liquid or solid whose diameter is less than 10 microns (a micron is one-millionth of a meter), and which, because of their extremely small size, are able to stay suspended as a gas. Similarly, volatile hydrocarbons can be present as a gas. Both can be breathed in with air. The small size of particulate matter allows them to penetrate deep within the lung into narrow air passages, where they can become irritating and make breathing more difficult. For those with respiratory conditions such as asthma, breathing air laden with particulate matter can be dangerous.

Nitrous oxides and carbon dioxide are greenhouse gases. Their continued emission into the atmosphere drives global warming. Along with emissions standards governing their release that have been enacted by various countries, 175 nations have also ratified the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement that is concerned with reductions in greenhouse gases.

An important set of emissions standards in the United States and other nations governs the composition of vehicle exhaust. The exhaust from gasoline-pow-ered vehicles consists mainly of N2, CO2, and water vapor. It has been estimated that the global emission of CO2 from cars is almost 3 billion tons each year, which is 20% of the total annual emission of CO2.

U.S. emissions standards are determined and legislated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Some states also have emissions standards. An example is California, whose emissions standards are among the most stringent in the world, and where legislation has been passed that mandates a gradual reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions from fuels including gasoline and diesel.

In 2008, vehicles that are sold in the United States must meet a set of EPA emission standards called Tier II, which were implemented in 2004. There are substandards that apply to different types of vehicles. For example, the Tier II emission standards that apply to a sports utility vehicle (SUV), gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle, pick-up truck, and diesel-powered vehicles are different. A hybrid vehicle is rated as zero emission, and so is governed by more stringent standards than all other vehicles.

Emissions standards also apply to facilities that produce atmospheric emissions such as coal-fired power plants. In rapidly developing countries such as China, where the number of coal power plants is rapidly increasing, such standards are important in curbing the decline in local air quality and contribution of greenhouse gases to the global atmosphere.

Impacts and Issues

In California, emissions standards are particularly necessary in curbing greenhouse-gas production. Vehicle exhaust accounts for 40% of California’s greenhouse-gas emissions, and over 95% of the vehicles operating in the state are powered by gasoline. The California Air Resources Board imposes some of the strictest emissions standards in the world, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has pioneered the introduction of the Low Carbon Fuel Standard legislation that will curb greenhouse-gas emissions. By 2020, the standard aims to reduce fuel-related greenhouse-gas emissions by 10%.

In Europe, more stringent emission standards were imposed for vehicles produced after 2004. Over time, as older vehicles are phased out and the more emission-efficient vehicles become progressively more dominant, vehicle-related emissions will decline. The same is true in countries with similar legislation including the United States and Canada.

In 2007, the EPA proposed more stringent emissions standards for engines that drive gasoline-powered lawn mowers and recreational watercraft. These engines produce up to 30% of the CO2 emissions in the United States. Gasoline-powered manually operated lawn mowers and recreational watercraft produce as much air pollutants per hour as almost 11 and 350 vehicles, respectively, according to the EPA. Adoption of these proposed standards could lead to a large decline in emissions.

Primary Source Connection

The following news article reports on a new clean-air rule approved in September 2007 that requires existing diesel trucks to be fixed according to code in order to cut down on air pollution, thus decreasing pollution-related illnesses. This new rule specifically targets Southern California’s road and skies, including Los Angeles, which is one of the cities with the most heavily polluted skies in America. Although much of the trucking industry is unhappy with the extra expense, the state’s environmentalists are avid that this new air clean up rule is necessary for a cleaner, healthier future.


A new air cleanup rule approved Sept. 27 promises faster replacement or retrofitting of the dirtiest trucks on the


ACID RAIN: A form of precipitation that is significantly more acidic than neutral water, often produced as the result of industrial processes.

ANTHROPOGENIC: Made by humans or resulting from human activities.

GREENHOUSE GAS: A gas that accumulates in the atmosphere and absorbs infrared radiation, contributing to the greenhouse effect.

PRIMARY POLLUTANT: Any pollutant released directly from a source to the atmosphere.

road: the diesel-powered big rigs that ply southern California’s highways by the tens of thousands on their way to and from the Port of Los Angeles, the nation’s busiest.

Although California and its network of air-pollution control districts have battled for decades to clean up the skies—and have more measures on the drawing board—this regulation targeting trucking is likely to have the biggest impact and to become a model for other places with serious pollution problems, say environmentalists.

“This is a big deal nationally because it requires the fixing of problems on trucks that are already on the road,” says Kathryn Phillips, manager of California Clean Air for Life Campaign, a program of Environmental Defense. “This could mean reaching lower emissions from trucks… 10 to 20 years sooner than would happen if we just waited for older trucks to wear out and be replaced at their natural pace.”

The rule, submitted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) and approved by local and state officials Thursday, applies to the area that includes Los Angeles, which has the dirtiest skies in America. It was opposed by long-haul truckers, who say the rule requires them to make expensive upgrades whose costs, in the end, will be passed along to consumers of transported goods.

In California, about two-thirds of targeted emissions come from mobile sources, and 70 to 80 percent of that comes from diesel.

Here in the City of Commerce, a Los Angeles suburb known for its pro-business climate and as a manufacturing and industrial center, Angelo Logan applauds the new rule. A former mechanic who grew up here, he says the community’s high rates of respiratory illness—2.5 times higher than the national average—have led people with families to relocate elsewhere.

“Young people want to raise their children in the same neighborhood… but are scared because of the health risks of diesel emissions,” says Mr. Logan. “Regulatory agencies need to use their authority to mandate that the trucking industry become a responsible corporate citizen.”

Los Angeles tops the list of most-polluted skies, but California’s San Joaquin Valley, Houston, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland, and Dallas are right behind—and all are struggling to meet federally mandated clean-air deadlines.

“Other cities and regions of the country [that] are looking for ways to reach clean-air goals will likely look to this California regimen for guidance,” says Ms. Phillips. About 687,000 diesel trucks produce more than one-quarter of California’s particulate air pollution and cause 2,000 premature deaths and 3,600 hospital visits annually, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The US Environmental Protection Agency has given the SCAQMD until 2014 to bring its particulate-emissions count into compliance with US law and until 2023 for ozone. The new truck rules, along with other measures, are expected to help California reach those goals sooner.

“The strengthening they’ve done with this new plan and [new] truck rule is substantial,” says NRDC scientist Diane Bailey.

Truckers and trucking associations say the new regulations will sock them with billions in new costs. Trucks, they say, are responsible for smaller portions of noxious emissions than people think—only 9 percent of targeted emissions.

“[This new regulation] is like telling everybody that they need to buy a new Prius to bring to work,” says Julie Sauls of the California Trucking Association. “We want to do our part but in a feasible way that doesn’t cripple our industry.”

Independent truckers, many of whom barely eke out a living, say investing in new equipment adds up to yet one more cost that many cannot afford.

“We pay a lot in taxes and tags and license fees for commercial insurance… and they make us use special machinery to test our trucks… and now they want us to do another one,” says Ester Hodge, a 30-year trucking veteran and part owner of AJE Trucking Inc. in East L.A. “This is another nuisance.”

Heightened collaboration between the California Air Resources Board (CARB) led by new chair Mary Nichols, and local boards such as SCAQMD and the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District prompted the breakthrough rule on trucking, say many observers. “Finally, the state is stepping in to help protect valley residents from this public-health emergency,” says Carolina Simunovic of Fresno Metro Ministry, a faith-based health- and social-advocacy organization.

Fresno and Bakersfield, cities in California’s agricultural San Joaquin Valley, are listed third and fourth in the US for metro areas most polluted by short-term particle pollution. Besides affecting farms and ranches, smog from noxious exhaust creates visible gauze as far away as Sequoia National Forest—and also damages trees there.“We’re encouraged that the state air board will help us breathe easier by reducing pollution from some of the valley’s worst mobile-source air-pollution offenders,” says Sara Sharpe of the Coalition for Clean Air.

CARB approved a measure in July that regulates construction and other industrial equipment. This month it is expected to turn its attention to exhaust emissions from ships and harbor craft, which spew tons of noxious fumes while idling in port.

Daniel B. Wood


Primary Source Connection

The following news article was written a year after California agreed to deplete carbon dioxide (CO2; shown as CO2 in the article) emissions by 25% by 2020. The article recognizes the struggles the state has gone through over the last year to begin meeting this goal; though, so far, California’s efforts have been fruitful and, not only other states, but also other countries are paying attention. Those who are skeptical of the plan include some tax and consumer groups that are unsure if the state’s money and efforts toward depleting 25% of CO2 emissions by 2020 will make a notable difference, while being worth the higher costs residents are facing.


One year after California vowed to cut industrial and auto greenhouse-gas emissions 25 percent by 2020 to combat global warming, the state is groping its way toward answers about how exactly it will attain that goal—and who will bear the costs.

Along the way, resistant officials have resigned or been fired, businesses and manufacturers have griped, and consumer groups have complained that oil companies aren’t doing enough to pony up. But as other states and other nations watch, California is clearing major hurdles—including passage last month of a bill allocating $125 million a year to develop alternative transportation fuels and vehicles and another $80 million a year to improve air quality.

Environmental activists, in particular, are satisfied with the state’s efforts thus far.

“California is off to a great start,” says Roland Hwang, vehicle policy director of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in California. The recent funding to begin implementing the greenhouse-gas cuts takes the emissions-cutting plan from drawing board to reality, he says, and “shows that several big pieces are being put into place.”

Even business groups, which a year ago were warning that companies would flee if California pushed ahead with global-warming rules, are engaged in the implementation. Many still worry about what their liabilities and costs will turn out to be, but say they no longer feel as if they are simply dissenting voices on the outside looking in.

“We are in the driver’s seat, participating in workshops and influencing how this plays out,” says Dorothy Rothrock, vice president of government relations for the California Manufacturers and Technology Association. “Happy is not the word, but we are… constructively involved in all the rulemaking developments… and that’s good.”

Outside California, ripples from its actions reach far and wide, observers say.

Governors of Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Manitoba in February partnered with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to form the Western Climate Initiative. Their proposal is to cut emissions 15 percent (based on 2005 levels) by 2020.

Twenty other states are devising their own ways to reduce gasoline consumption by use of alternative transportation and fuels.

Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle (R) signed a greenhouse-gas reduction bill in June, and New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D) has signed legislation calling for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, about a 20 percent cut.

Still, a major piece of California’s plan to curb such emissions is contingent on action in the nation’s capital. The state is waiting to hear whether the Environmental Protection Agency will allow it to require automakers to achieve fuel-efficiency standards for new-model vehicles sold in California that are higher than current federal standards. Named after Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, who wrote the 2002 bill that resulted in a standard of 43 miles per gallon by 2020, the Pavley Standards have since been adopted by 13 other states.

Collectively, the standards would cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 392 million metric tons by 2020—the equivalent of taking 74 million cars off the road for one year, experts say. Nationally, nearly 26 percent of US greenhouse-gas emissions come from transportation.

“The administration’s decision will either lead the issue of global warming or block us from reaching our goals,” says NRDC’s Mr. Hwang.

The California initiative has also created international ripples. On Oct. 29, California, New York, New Zealand, Norway, and several European countries and Canadian provinces formed an International Carbon Action Partnership to create a global cap-and-trade carbon market to build demand for low-carbon services and products.

In September, Governor Schwarzenegger joined more than 80 leaders at a United Nations summit on climate change, leading some to speculate that individual US states will ultimately push the federal government into taking a firmer stand against global warming.

“The governor plays a great role by being a cheerleader for global warming,” says Jim Metropulos of the Sierra Club. “He’s a Republican in the biggest state, and to say that… we are going to do what we need to do to get these goals met has a big impact.”

While it’s hard to find an environmental group that doesn’t like California’s plan, some tax and consumer groups are grumbling because they feel that air polluters are not shouldering enough of the cost, leaving consumers with the burden. Drivers with new vehicles will have to pay a smog-abatement fee of $20, instead of $12, for six years. Annual vehicle registration costs will also increase $3.

But one year into the initiative, some still question whether a 25 percent cut in greenhouse gases 13 years from now will have any benefit.

“We have one example to compare this to, which is Europe’s attempt to cut CO2 since the Kyoto accords in 1997,” says Sterling Burnett of the National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas. “They promised to implement all these programs with all this money, [but] their emissions have grown at a faster rate than [in] the US, despite our bigger population growth…. That is… probably what we will see in California.”

Daniel B. Wood


See Also Air Pollution; Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Emissions; Clean Air Act of 1970; Greenhouse Gases



Ho, Mun S., and Chris P. Nielsen. Clearing the Air: The Health and Economic Damages of Air Pollution in China. Boston: MIT Press, 2007.

Schwartz, Joel. Air Quality in America: A Dose of Reality on Air Pollution Levels, Trends, and Health Risks. Washington: AEI Press, 2008.

Brian D. Hoyle