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Will Our Zero-Emission Future be Shaped in California?

by Bill MagavernJune 8, 2022
The forward-looking strategy for zero-emission cars in California and 16 other states rests with decisions the California Air Resources Board is making now.
Bill Magavern, Coalition for Clean Air

Ever since the smog-choked days of the 1960s, the Golden State has led the way toward cleaner cars. The array of zippy zero-emission electric cars that drivers can choose from today owes a great deal to the standards set by California’s Air Resources Board (CARB). During this Summer, a season which experts say will threaten millions of Americans with drought, extreme heat. and wildfires, CARB will decide on the next step for green cars.

While Governor Gavin Newsom has ordered that all new cars sold in the state from 2035 on emit no pollution from their tailpipes, the actual rules will be written by CARB in its Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) standard. The The The ZEV standard currently covers model years through 2025, so the next one will cover 2026 and beyond. Because 16 other states have chosen to follow California’s car standards, what happens in Sacramento will not stay in Sacramento.

CARB staff have proposed a package that would meet the Governor’s goal of 100% sales of ZEVs in 2035, along with further ratcheting down on tailpipe pollution from the internal combustion engines that will be sold before then. The proposed rule would add some important consumer protections to assure that buyers of ZEVs get the performance and durability that they are paying for.

But the Board Members should strengthen the measure in two major ways: timing and equity. Given the urgency of the twin crises of air pollution and climate chaos that are damaging our communities today, California should require that ZEV sales reach 75% – rather than the 68% in the proposal – by 2030, on the way to the 100% by 2035 finish line. Setting that pace will reduce emissions sooner, bringing needed relief to our lungs and health, while also putting more clean vehicles into the supply that buyers can choose from. The current proposal, if not strengthened, would saddle Californians with hundreds of thousands of more polluting cars on the road that cost them more money at the pump and will continue to spew climate altering and lung damaging pollution.

Clean Mobility for Everyone

Electric car plugged in at charging station.

Furthermore, we need to make sure that the clean transportation revolution benefits everyone, especially those who have benefitted the least from new technologies while suffering the worst impacts of air pollution and global warming. Coalition for Clean Air works with our partners in the Charge Ahead California campaign to democratize the electric car, and CARB should assure that residents of disadvantaged and low-income communities have access to clean mobility, whether through car ownership or other affordable options like car-sharing.

California has led the nation – and often the world – in improving motor vehicles through smart regulation and enforcement. It was CARB that required catalytic converters to reduce smog in the 1970s, set the first standards for vehicle greenhouse gas emissions in the 2000s, and spurred the development of what is now a robust electrical vehicle  (EV) market through the ZEV standard over the last 10 years. California’s leadership has also benefited its economy, as EVs are now the state’s #1 export.

California's Zero-Emission Leadership

But other countries have caught and passed us when it comes to EV deployment. China and many European countries now have higher percentages of EV sales than the U.S. does. With global demand burgeoning, automakers have introduced more than twice as many EV models in Europe and more than five times as many models in China as they have in the U.S. In order to avoid being at the back of the line for the best clean vehicles, California needs to raise the bar and require manufacturers to sell their best – and most affordable – EVs here.

As soaring gas prices, choking smog, and extreme heat make clean electric transportation more urgent than ever, CARB should lead the way toward a zero-emission future.

Bill Magavern is Policy Director for the Coalition for Clean Air, a California non-profit working to protect public health, improve air quality and prevent climate change.