In summary

The most important strategy to achieve net zero carbon emissions in California by mid-century is to ramp up use of electric vehicles.

By Dan Sperling, Special to CalMatters

Dan Sperling is founding director of the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies, dsperling@ucdavis.edu.

A cascade of countries is committing to net zero carbon emissions by mid-century, but there is one inconvenient fact: Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation are increasing. That’s problematic because transportation is the largest emitter in the United States and many other countries. 

To address this challenge, the state of California commissioned the University of California Institute of Transportation Studies to devise a roadmap to achieve zero net carbon transportation by 2045. Our 450-page report, Driving California’s Transportation Emissions to Zero, released last month, is a collaboration of 33 transportation researchers from the UC campuses at Berkeley, Davis, Los Angeles and Irvine. 

We found that California can indeed achieve carbon neutrality by 2045, while embracing goals of environmental justice and high quality job creation. 

Doing so would incur an additional cost to the economy, in terms of investments in new vehicle and fuel technologies, of about $10 billion through 2030 – which is about 1% of what consumers and businesses would be spending on vehicles and fuels. This investment will ultimately pay itself back through lower operating costs: electricity costs less than gasoline and diesel, and electric vehicles have far fewer moving parts to lubricate, maintain and eventually replace. 

After about 2030, these lower operating costs mean Californians will start to save money, reaching about $23 billion in savings per year by 2045, with a cumulative net savings of $175 billion from 2030 to 2045. These benefits are still greater if one considers the cleaner air, healthier people and less climate disruption associated with a switch from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy. 

By far, the most important strategy for decarbonizing transportation is electrification of cars, trucks and buses. By 2040, nearly all vehicles sold would need to be powered by electricity or hydrogen to reach decarbonization in 2045. 

In 2019-20, only 8% of passenger vehicle sales were electric, amounting to 133,000 in 2020. Ramping up to 100% will require a massive effort. Regulatory targets need to be strengthened, the state must expand incentives to buyers, charging must become more convenient and people will need to acclimate to a new driving experience. In parallel, the electricity grid must become nearly zero carbon, though California is already well on the way to meeting this target. 

Strong incentives will also be needed to accelerate electric vehicle purchases over the coming decade. These incentives need not, however, come from taxpayers; they could come from fossil fuel companies and buyers who persist in buying gasoline and diesel vehicles. Financial incentives could be generated through a tightening of existing mechanisms, such as the Low Carbon Fuel Standard or creation of new policy mechanisms, such as feebates – essentially a gas guzzler fee assessed at the time of purchase, which is used to reduce the cost of efficient vehicles, like EVs.

Electric vehicles alone won’t move the transportation sector to zero emissions. Some internal combustion engines will likely remain on the road years after the last one rolls off the assembly line, and some types of transportation – like aircraft – will probably require liquid fuels for quite a while. 

Another path to reach zero transportation emissions is reducing the overall amount of driving Californians need to do. Even with efforts to promote carpooling and transit, Californians continue to drive more per-capita each year. New policies are needed to limit road expansion, incentivize shared mobility (including for future autonomous vehicles), enhance public transit, densify land uses, and improve infrastructure for pedestrians, bicycles and scooters, while prioritizing mobility access for underserved populations. 

For too long, overburdened and underserved communities have borne the brunt of fossil fuel pollution and antiquated mobility options. California must ensure that we bring all voices to the table as we discuss how to transition to a more sustainable future.

California is poised to chart a path to sustainable transportation – one that saves money for consumers and the economy – once again demonstrating the Golden State’s leadership to the rest of the world.

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