In summary

Gasoline is a big part of the climate crisis and we must demand that our elected officials achieve big, consistent cuts in gasoline usage.

By Russell Hancock, Special to CalMatters

Russell Hancock is president & CEO of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a nonprofit think tank. He also teaches in the Public Policy Program at Stanford University, info@jointventure.org.

If you wanted to lose weight, would you measure your progress by counting salads you ate, or by stepping on the scale? When it comes to reducing consumption of gasoline, our biggest source of carbon emissions, cities are counting salads. 

Cities look at metrics such as electric vehicle adoption, EV charging installations and vehicle miles traveled.  While this data may be related to gasoline reduction, it doesn’t measure gasoline reduction. 

Salad counting isn’t cutting it. 

Across the U.S., as of 2018, gasoline use was at an all-time high of 147 billion gallons a year. Even California, home to half of all the EVs in the country, has not bent the gasoline consumption curve down, with pre-pandemic sales plateauing at 14 billion gallons a year. 

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Gasoline and diesel make up about 41% of carbon emissions in California – most of that from cars, trucks and SUVs. In Menlo Park, it’s 56%. Each gallon of gasoline burned puts 20 pounds of CO2 into an overstuffed atmosphere. And down on the ground, air pollution from gasoline and diesel is killing 385,000 people a year globally.  

Cities have a pretty good scale for measuring gasoline use, if they choose to use it – counting gallons of gasoline sales in their city.  In California, gas stations must report gallons sold annually to the state’s Energy Commission, but cities aren’t taking advantage of this data. Effective use of it would allow cities to establish the rigorous focus, goals and plans concerning gasoline cuts necessary to address the climate crisis. 

Menlo Park just adopted a citywide gasoline goal: reduce gasoline sales within city limits 10% a year from a 2018 baseline. This goal is consistent with the cuts necessary worldwide to realize the Paris Climate goals. Other cities should do the same.

How can cities achieve aggressive gasoline reduction goals like those set by Menlo Park? For starters, they should ensure everyone has convenient access to electric vehicle charging, electrify public fleets, educate residents on why and how to stop using gasoline, publicize annual goals for gasoline reduction and celebrate milestones. 

Cities should also work with major employers to electrify corporate-owned and contracted vehicles and require gasoline-free delivery of goods and services. Employers should enable their employees to stop using gasoline in connection with work by installing workplace EV charging, electrifying corporate shuttles and encouraging working from home.  

Additionally, cities should insist on strict compliance with all environmental laws by gas stations within their jurisdiction, and work to transition gas stations to healthier and more urgently needed uses such as housing.  

If these measures aren’t achieving gasoline reductions at the pace required, more aggressive methods to discourage purchases of new gas-powered vehicles may be needed, such as parking restrictions and road tolls for new gas cars purchased after a certain year.

These approaches may sound tough, but we are in a climate crisis that is already causing widespread death, disease and disaster, and gasoline is the biggest cause of it. We just can’t leave the gasoline spigot wide open for limitless gasoline consumption any longer.  

We can’t keep pretending we can’t track how much gasoline is flowing in our cities, and we can’t keep running from accountability for the gasoline we use. Rather, we must come to terms with the fact that using gasoline is a big part of the climate crisis and demand that our elected officials achieve big, consistent cuts in gasoline usage. It’s time to stop counting salads and step on the scale.

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Related CalMatters story: Newsom orders ban of new gas-powered cars by 2035

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