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Going green: California bans sales of new gas cars by 2035

The Golden State already boasts 43% of the nation's plug-in vehicles. Will it bring the rest of the United States into the zero-emission vehicle future too?

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California has set an ambitious deadline for green car sales, requiring that by 2035 all new vehicles sold in the state must be powered by electricity or hydrogen.

The unanimous vote by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) marks a groundbreaking step to transform the state’s historic reliance on gas-burning vehicles that will have effects nationwide. Vehicles are the highest contributor to pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions in California, causing about 80% of ozone precursor emissions and 50% of statewide greenhouse gas emissions.

“The success of the program will depend on every car buyer embracing reduced emission vehicles, even the most reluctant,” Anna Wong of CARB's Sustainable Transportation and Communities division told the board Thursday.

She said in addition to cleaning the air of combustion pollution, the mandate offers the greatest benefits to communities along transportation corridors by reducing tailpipe and freeway emissions. 

Jonathan Gilligan, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at Vanderbilt University, said there could be great economic and environmental benefits from a large-scale transition to electric vehicles. It could save consumers money thanks to lower fuel and maintenance costs, while reducing pollution and saving thousands of lives lost each year from poor air quality. 

There are two caveats, however.

"If California isn't able to fix the reliability problems with its electrical grid, and install charging facilities for all of the cars, consumers could face difficulties that would drive a public backlash against the regulations and end up making it more even difficult to achieve the goal of electrifying the vehicle fleet,” Gilligan said. “Requiring everyone to move to electric cars will only work if people are easily able to buy those cars for affordable prices by 2035, and to get reliable and convenient access to charging when they need it.”

In the report to CARB, staff said proposed requiring automobile manufacturers to deliver increasing percentages of zero-emission vehicles between model years 2026 and 2035. Although the state makes up 10% of the U.S. car market, it's home to 43% of the nation's 2.6 million registered plug-in vehicles, according to the board.

A proposal to transition to 100% zero and reduced emission vehicles by 2035 in California, demonstrated by year. Image courtesy of California Air Resources Board.

Using incentives for car manufacturers, this proposal will create nearly 100% sales of zero-emission vehicles and plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles by 2035, pushed into action by Governor Gavin Newsom’s Executive Order N-79-20. The report said the proposal is critical to achieve statewide carbon neutrality by 2045 and to cut emissions from passenger vehicles to meet new federal ambient ozone standards by 2037, as well as to reduce thousands of cardiopulmonary deaths, hospital admissions for cardiovascular illness, respiratory illness and asthma attacks.

“We can solve this climate crisis if we focus on the big, bold steps necessary to cut pollution. California now has a groundbreaking, world-leading plan to achieve 100 percent zero-emission vehicle sales by 2035," Newsom said in a statement after CARB's vote.

The transition will be difficult for regions of the state where oil is still a primary export, as California remains the seventh-largest oil producing state. CARB estimates the regulation changes would create new cumulative costs to manufacturers of about $30 billion, or $2 billion per year, between 2026 and 2040.

A proposal to transition to 100% zero and reduced emission vehicles by 2035 in California, demonstrated by year. Image courtesy of California Air Resources Board.

However, the board believes consumers will actually save in the future, partly due to reduced costs from gasoline consumption — about $93 billion between 2026 to 2040. The report also pointed to thousands of new jobs being created, with a cumulative net benefit of about $91.1 billion to the state by 2040.

Board member Hector de la Torre said many countries are implementing similar mandates, including the United Kingdom, France and Japan.

“This is the world market, this is where things are going. California is not out of step,” he said.

Amy Lilly with Mercedes Benz’s research and development department told the board the company approves how the mandate was amended to work with car manufacturers.

“The goal for us is to have 100% of our fleet be zero emission by 2030,” she said. She added the company hopes CARB will support some flexibility while making the transition, such as with more credit earning opportunities to help promote and launch new vehicles. 

Kia has committed to investing $25 billion in expanding electric vehicle technologies in the next decade, a representative told the board.

Of many Californians who spoke to the board Thursday, some endorsed the proposal. Bianca Lopez, representing the Clean Vehicle Empowerment Collaborative in San Joaquin Valley, said they support the proposed regulations but that there must be a clear commitment to ensure equitable access to zero-emission vehicles for the most disadvantaged communities. 

"Our EV equity program has been very successful as we’ve helped Californians across the Central Valley learn more about air quality and buy electric vehicles that have been very necessary for the people we represent," Lopez said.

Others said the state has not addressed residents’ basic rights to clean air, saying CARB needs to work harder to ensure that the budget invests equitably in communities at the most risk of exposure to poor air due to poverty and historic discrimination.

Heather Kay of ¡Sí Se Puede! Collective asked CARB to "slow down" and consider how the program could impact working Central Valley families.

"We ask you to please consider the communities that are the backbone of this state, and slow down this aggressive timeline," she said.

Marcus Gomez, from the California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said the proposed regulations could cost thousands of jobs and increase costs for low-income people and locally owned vehicle businesses.

“The small businesses and their employees cannot absorb these economic losses,” Gomez said. “(The) regulations are simply too much, too fast, for minority-owned businesses.”

These regulations do not mean people must stop driving gas-powered cars. Californians can continue driving gas vehicles and purchasing used ones after 2035, and the plan allows for one-fifth of sales after 2035 to be plug-in hybrids.

The allowances are why Scott Hochberg, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute, said “It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s also a missed opportunity.” He said the amended proposal does not have the teeth to mandate merchants to use new technology to further reduce emissions from gas-powered vehicles still on the road during the next decade.

“The EPA needs to accelerate equitable EV adoption and require strong pollution controls for the millions of gas-powered cars that will be sold before the fleet is electrified," he said.

Alice Kaswan, professor at USF School of Law, agreed that while the regulation sends the auto industry "a clear signal," the state must go further to tackle reducing emissions from vehicles, refineries and oil production.  

"Future programs could buy back gas and diesel vehicles and, for wealthy car owners, could impose fees that disincentivize their continued use," Kaswan said.

The infrastructure bill passed by Congress in 2021 provides $5 billion for states to place chargers every 50 miles along interstate highways, and Biden's Inflation Reduction Act also increases credits for green vehicles. Newsom has pledged billions to boost zero-emission vehicle sales, such as by adding chargers in low-income neighborhoods, and the California Legislature is discussing bills proposing similar investments.

California must now receive a waiver under the Clean Air Act from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in order to implement the mandate, which the Biden administration has indicated it will approve.

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