Finally, after years of obstruction by the North American car companies and their political allies, serious auto emission restrictions are coming to the United States and Canada.
As in the whole battle against the carbon dioxide emissions that cause climate change, the U.S. under President Barack Obama is leading, and Canada under Prime Minister Stephen Harper is following.
Yesterday, Mr. Obama swept away years of lawsuits, political fights and jurisdictional rows, imposing new emission standards that by 2016 will require almost 40 per cent more fuel-efficient fleets.
The dwindling and increasingly strident band of climate-change deniers will scoff at this measure, as they do any attempt to reduce emissions. But there is no scientific support for their objections any more and, more painful for them, no serious elected official or political party anywhere in the advanced industrial world agrees with them.
Those in places such as Alberta, who have rightly complained that their oil and gas industry should not be singled out for special attention, should rejoice. Ontario is where cars are made in Canada, and drivers everywhere will be asked to do their part, which is as it should be in this struggle to reduce emissions.
The Obama initiative constitutes the single most important step ever taken against emissions in North America. It was done with the support of the auto industry that finally could see further stonewalling was useless. After all, the futures of General Motors and Chrysler lie in government hands, and public policy will not allow any more of the dilatory tactics the industry employed for years.
The new U.S. measures will start being implemented by 2012, and will likely increase the cost of cars. But - and this is critical for understanding the price consequences - the composition of fleets will almost certainly change, with many smaller, fuel-efficient cars, including hybrids and electric cars, replacing SUVs and other gas-guzzlers. So, although individual models will increase in cost, an overall shift will be under way to smaller, cheaper models.
If, as is highly likely, the price of gasoline rises, once the recession ends, the market shift to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars will intensify. With salutary effects on the atmosphere.
Canada will have no choice but to accept the Obama policy, given the integrated nature of the North American car industry. The Harper government has said as much for some time - that Canada will wait for what the Americans decide, and then act. Well, the Americans have now acted.
And so it is with almost all aspects of Canada's climate change policy: We are waiting for Obama. We have useless, costly policies such as corn-based ethanol subsidies and transit tax credits. We have subsidies for research and alternative energy programs. We have subsidies for carbon sequestration that may or may not work, and will be very expensive per tones of emissions.
But we have no carbon tax (except in British Columbia), no cap-and-trade system and, long after they were promised, still no regulations flowing from the Harper government's ineffectual intensity-based targets. We have, in other words, no effective policies, which is why we are waiting for Obama.
California may be increasingly ungovernable - a $42-billion (U.S.) deficit, chronic gridlock, demands for a new state constitution - but it remains a North American leader in emissions control. It was California that pioneered tougher controls with requirements that emission standards be continuously tightened. Car companies under the California plan would be allowed to decide how to adjust their fleets to meet the tougher standards, but the penalties if they failed were severe.
The Bush administration, full of climate change deniers, objected to the California plan, throwing up substantive and jurisdictional arguments. Other states said they, too, wanted to adopt the California standards, but courts and the Environmental Protection Agency said only a national standard would do. And this national standard the Bush administration refused to provide.
Now the Obama administration has provided one, and North American roads will never be the same. Instead of an average fleet mileage rule of 25 miles to the U.S. gallon, it will be 35.5 by 2016.
It was a great day for public policy. Too bad it took so long.