Ottawa is cracking down on auto emissions in a bid to reduce pollution and greenhouse gases.

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Canada has announced plans to harmonize vehicle emissions with tougher U.S. standards. ((Canadian Press))

Environment Minister Jim Prentice announced Thursday that in concert with the United States, Canada will bring in tougher auto-emissions standards for vehicles in the 2011-16 model years.  

The new rules mean Canada and the U.S. will have uniform emissions standards for cars and light trucks in future.

"I have consistently stressed the importance of working with the U.S. on emissions [and] today we have created a single, continental approach," Prentice said at an Ottawa-area news conference.

By 2016, the new measures will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles by 25 per cent from 2008 models. New standards will require 2016 model-year vehicles to meet a fuel efficiency target of 35.5 miles per gallon — or 6.6 L/100 km — combined for cars and trucks, an increase of nearly 10 miles per gallon over current standards. The average Canadian car consumes 8.6 litres of fuel in 100 kilometres.

Until now, California was seen as the bellwether of emissions standards, since the state has clashed with federal officials for the better part of a decade for implementing its own tough emission standards. But the state has now signed on to the continental plan, effectively bringing an end to "California emissions," Prentice noted.

Quebec and British Columbia had earlier deemed the national regulations not strong enough and demanded cars made and sold in the province adhere to California's stringent standards. With California and all 50 states signing on to the new plan, it remains to be seen whether the two provinces will continue to chart their own course.

"This is taking a big step forward in fighting climate change," Prentice said. It is a key part of the commitment Ottawa made at the recent Copenhagen conference on climate change to get total emissions to 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020, he said.

Emissions from passenger vehicles represent roughly 25 per cent of Canada's total emissions, and a continent-wide agreement on emissions from larger industrial transport trucks is expected later on in the spring, Prentice suggested.

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A customer fills up her tank at a gas staton in St. John's. New rules will require cars to be much more fuel efficient by 2016.

Officials from the auto industry stood shoulder to shoulder with environmental activists in praising the move Thursday.

"This provides the clarity vehicle makers need into their long-range production cycles … to allow for a wider implementaion without restricting vehicle availability," said Mark Nantais, president of the Canadian Association of Vehicle Manufacturers.

Ford Canada president David Mondragon welcomed the announcement.

"This approach will avoid a patchwork of competing regulations [and] having one national standard will avoid having to restrict offering products in certain areas," he said.

'This approach will avoid a patchwork of competing regulations.' — David Mondragon, Ford Canada Inc. president

Bob Oliver, executive director of environmental think-tank Pollution Probe, lauded the move for taking a proportional approach.

"Automobiles both large and small will have to be proportionately more fuel-efficient. Canada is already a leader in parts-making, so we stand to benefit [since] this legislation will be a market driver."

"Pollution Probe and Ottawa have not always seen eye to eye, but we both want the auto sector to thrive and succeed globally," he said.

The new standards are likely to lead to an increase in sticker prices for vehicles, but drivers will make up the difference in lower fuel costs within a year and a half of purchase and benefit from the savings thereafter, Prentice estimated.

Follows drilling announcement

U.S. President Barack Obama gave a preview of the plan Wednesday but was short on specifics.

Obama said the standards would "reduce our dependence on oil while helping folks spend a little less at the pump."

His attempt to toughen emission standards comes on the heels of his decision to allow offshore drilling along the eastern seaboard. 

This rankled environmentalists, who immediately compared the president to his allegedly oil industry-friendly predecessors. Obama countered these criticisms by noting the new emission rules will save 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the life of the program.

"None of this should have been a surprise to anybody," White House spokesman Bill Burton said in defence of the plan. "We've been talking about all these different elements for a very long time and the president is following through on promises."

With files from The Associated Press