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Armed with good data, engineers wage quiet battle for cleaner air

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 2 April 2020 16:19 GMT

As countries wage war on climate change and pollution from vehicles, a little-known transport group is providing the ammunition

By Laurie Goering

LONDON, April 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - 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 cars and by 2021 is expected to have lowered planet-warming carbon emissions from new cars by 30%.

Mexico similarly launched pioneering regulations to cut emissions in 2014, focused on reducing pollution from its millions of automobiles.

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 decarbonise the global transport sector by mid-century.

The Washington-based International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) - which on Thursday won a $1.5-million prize from the Skoll Foundation - gathers and crunches data to give countries the ammunition they need to draw up effective policies, said Drew Kodjak, its executive director.

What the ICCT may be best known for, however, 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 cars pass emissions tests and then produce vastly more nitrogen oxide pollution on the road, eventually led to a $2.8-billion fine by a U.S. judge in 2017, and an embarrassing admission of guilt by VW officials.

"The ripple effects are still being felt," Kodjak said, with Europe, for instance, passing new regulations to rein in pollution from diesel vehicles.

Besides providing data, the ICCT also guides bureaucrats through the long and often politically arduous slog of rolling out tighter 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, said Kodjak.

When fully implemented by 2030, those will reduce carbon emissions from the global transport sector by 2.4 gigatonnes a year, or about 25% of its emissions today, according to ICCT calculations.

"Most people think of Congress enacting laws, or the president signing an order," the environmental lawyer said.

But most of the real work happens in agencies tasked with turning laws - like the U.S. Clean Air Act - into reality, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"In this arena, data is the primary currency," Kodjak said. "If you have data and good analysis, this is what drives things."

The ICCT got its start after Michael Walsh, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official working on vehicle emissions, resigned because former President Ronald Reagan's administration reversed policies he had fought for.

Walsh then began consulting, helping countries from Europe to Japan 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 ICCT.

"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 U.S. EPA attorney.

At the start, the ICCT - 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 ICCT helped gather data on every vehicle in the country, new and old, and analysed automakers' future plans and potential imports, said Rodolfo Lacy, a former deputy Mexican environment minister.

That work allowed Mexico to design a cutting-edge regulation and get it past politicians and manufacturers, he said by phone.

"I was able to pass the first CO2 climate regulation in my country thanks to their help," said Lacy, now environment director for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Artur Runge-Metzger, director of international and EU climate strategy for the European Commission, said the ICCT's solid data, global view of regulations and long experience in working through political processes was particularly helpful.

"They look at different proposals on the table and scrutinise where they think there could be weaknesses", feeding in data needed at key points to push things ahead, he said, as well as helping countries borrow good ideas from others.

Efforts to cut vehicle emissions are still happening too slowly, Kodjak said, especially with ICCT studies estimating the health impacts of global transport emissions at a trillion dollars per year between 2010 and 2015.

Roll-backs of hard-won emissions standards - something happening now in the United States under President Donald Trump's administration - also are "a frustration", he said.

"The speed with which governments tend to act is not commensurate with the speed with which we need to deal with climate change," he said.

Read more: Sustainable transport

(Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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