climate change

California’s Ban on Gas Cars Could Go Nationwide — But Still Doesn’t Go Far Enough

A photo of a white electric vehicle with a charger plugged in.
Powering up. Photo: Robert Alexander/Getty Images

In September, California governor Gavin Newsom announced he was banning the sale of internal-combustion-engine passenger vehicles after 2035 — a command that was met with surprise and a great deal of skepticism. In the midst of a back-and-forth with the federal government about raking forest floors, it was difficult not to see it as yet another fight for the governor to pick with the president. But now, as Joe Biden heads to the White House saying he wants to retool the U.S. auto industry, such a proposal is likely to be coming to other states, too — and possibly much sooner than Americans might think.

Newsom’s executive order would require that “100 percent of in-state sales of new passenger cars and trucks are zero-emission by 2035” in order to meet ambitious climate goals (all of which have deadlines that arrive long after he’s left office). That would put California — often called the world’s fifth-largest economy — in line with dozens of countries that have already committed to similar goals, but it’s by far the most progressive proposal for any American state. Though because this is California, even floating that idea publicly can quickly shape policy nationwide. Since 1970, as part of efforts to reduce air pollution, California has been granted permission by the federal government to set its own vehicle emissions standards that are more aggressive than the federal ones. The Trump administration tried, repeatedly, to take that autonomy away, but California’s standards have since been adopted by 14 states, plus the District of Columbia, and about a third of the vehicles on U.S. roads have been manufactured to these cleaner standards. The sheer size of its market gives it outsize power with automakers.

Even if its power, in this case, is mostly rhetorical. At least one in five cars on U.S. roads needs to be electric by 2030 to hit climate benchmarks, says Britta Gross, managing director of the mobility practice at the Rocky Mountain Institute, which is why setting nationwide milestones that take California’s standards a step further, rather than treating them as the avant-garde, will be key. “The carmakers, the bus-makers, the truck-makers, and even the infrastructure producers need confidence that the market will demand these investments,” she says. “There have to be fuel-efficiency targets, with how much of an increase we want to see year over year, and the higher those targets, the better electric vehicles start to look.”

As it’s laid out on Biden’s new transition site, the Build Back Better plan — with a goal of achieving a net-zero economy by 2050 — aims to reorganize the American auto industry around electric-vehicle manufacturing, including funding investments in battery technology and electric-vehicle charging stations. It’s listed under climate change as one of the administration’s top priorities, along with a comprehensive strategy to invest in transit. In addition, Biden has promoted a new “cash for clunkers” program, a bit like the one the Obama administration offered, that would incentivize trading in an internal-combustion vehicle for a zero-emission one, as outlined in the Clean Cars for America proposal unveiled in Congress last year. Trying to wean the U.S. off of SUVs and trucks in particular will be a real challenge for any future transportation secretary, as most well-off Americans who have the option to go electric now — even with a variety of incentives and tax credits offered at the state and local level — are buying more gargantuan gas-guzzling vehicles instead.

Biden’s plan sounds okay-ish. But a 2035 deadline to phase out fossil-fuel car sales really isn’t soon enough, according to Costa Samaras, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and co-author of a new paper on decarbonizing the U.S. vehicle fleet. The average American car on the road is 12 years old — meaning half of the cars we’re driving are older than that — so if we’re still buying gasoline-powered engines until 2035, that means a lot of them will be on roads well into the 2050s. That is simply too leisurely a pace, he says. “That’s like saying I’m going to start my exercise regimen on January 1: Just as soon as the holidays are over, I promise to get in shape.” New cars alone won’t get us where we need to be — we need to significantly reduce the amount Americans drive. “We need so much transit and so much biking and so much walking — way more than your wildest dreams,” he says. “And then, after that, we also have to electrify millions of vehicles.” Samaras points to a single paragraph far down in Newsom’s executive order that mentions how the state’s transportation department will invest in non-car infrastructure. “There’s one section where they talk about Caltrans and other agencies reorienting toward other modes of travel,” he says. “I would like to see the dollar values behind those.”

Even as the state’s elected leaders have made climate pledges that cannot accommodate any increases in driving, California, like most other states, is still spending billions of dollars each year on widening and building new freeways. Switching to electric vehicles won’t change that, says Chanell Fletcher, executive director of ClimatePlan, which is part of a transportation-equity coalition in California. She supports Newsom’s proposal but says if it’s not paired with additional policies to support the communities — disproportionately brown and Black — that have been hurt by decades of car-centric development, they will continue to be harmed. “This is where we need to have these conversations so we don’t replicate the mistakes of the past,” she says. “If we’re upholding the need for highways without thinking about these communities, you’re doing something good for the climate but continuing to traumatize them.” What Fletcher wants to see, both at the state and the national level, is a complete overhaul of the way transportation funding is allocated that focuses on what those communities need. “We need to replace the fleet, but we don’t need to keep building that infrastructure,” she says. “Defund those institutions, dismantle them, and start over from the bottom up.”

California’s Ban on Gas Cars Doesn’t Go Far Enough