In summary

To limit further damage from climate change and air pollution, we have to ensure all cars on the road in 2045 are free of emissions.

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By David Reichmuth, Special to CalMatters

David Reichmuth is a senior engineer in the Clean Transportation program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Faced with an onslaught of impacts like drought and wildfires, Californians are growing increasingly alarmed by the climate crisis. 

Transportation is the state’s single largest source of heat-trapping emissions driving climate change and a significant contributor to the worst air quality in the nation. As part of its broader climate strategy, California needs to accelerate the transition to cars that don’t burn fossil fuels.

California has succeeded in putting more than 1 million plug-in electric cars on the road by providing incentives and adopting standards that require automakers to develop and market an increasing share of zero-emission vehicles, influencing similar efforts by other states and the federal government.

But while California’s clean air policies have long made the Golden State a national and international leader in combating climate pollution, we are falling behind. Because of stricter limits on carbon emissions in Europe, countries such as Germany and the U.K. are rolling out far more clean cars.

If you are concerned about climate change, here’s why you should care about the often-baffling world of California’s Zero-Emission Vehicle regulations:

For more than 50 years, California has been allowed under the Clean Air Act to propose more stringent tailpipe standards for new cars than the federal government and, once approved, other states can adopt its rules. Our unique role in setting vehicle standards was born of necessity, with Los Angeles and other parts of the state enduring decades of smoggy air linked largely to vehicle exhaust.

While the Trump administration took away that authority, it is expected to soon be restored by the Biden administration – good news for California and the 14 states that follow our lead, representing more than 35% of new car sales in the United States.

It comes as the California Air Resources Board is drafting a new generation of rules for model years 2026 through 2035 intended to fulfill Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order that calls for all new cars in the state to be zero-emission vehicles by 2035. 

To limit further damage from climate change and air pollution, particularly in communities where residents’ health is most impacted by dirty air, we have to ensure all cars on the road in 2045 are free of emissions. We need more ambitious rules, particularly in the last half of this decade, because new cars last an average of 12 years – meaning a gasoline-fueled car purchased in 2028 will likely still be on the road into the 2040s.

The Air Resources Board should set a sales standard of 75% new pollution-free cars by 2030 to best achieve California’s climate and air quality goals.

Regulation has been an effective way to speed up sales of electric cars because it creates greater certainty for automakers. Already, thanks to previous rules, companies are ramping up the manufacturing of EVs and investors are pouring significant funds into building and selling these vehicles.

Automakers have publicly acknowledged that consumer demand for electric vehicles is soaring, signaling a major shift in the industry’s direction. Ford Motor Co. is reportedly spending billions of dollars to manufacture 600,000 EVs a year by 2024, hoping that clean cars represent half of its global sales by the end of the decade.

Multinational companies are selling more EVs and a greater variety of models in Europe because they prioritize regions with more aggressive regulations. Consumers in California and the other states that have adopted our standards deserve access to more electric cars across all vehicle classes by the end of this decade, saving them money in reduced fuel and maintenance costs.

California regulators have long played an important leadership role in reducing vehicle pollution and carbon emissions, and now is no time to give up the driver’s seat. California must use its full authority under the Clean Air Act to set regulations this year that ensure a rapid transition to zero-emission vehicles. 

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