The California Air Resources Board’s recent decision to phase out all gas-powered vehicle sales by 2035 marked the culmination of a 50-year fight by CARB to clean up pollution from vehicles in California, which has long been the biggest source of the infamous and sometimes horrible smog syndrome, and is now its biggest contribution to the climate crisis.
The story begins with two defeats, more than 20 years apart: In 1969, the California legislature passed within a vote of phasing out the internal combustion engine. Even then, almost enough lawmakers were convinced that the gasoline engine could never be clean enough. A generation later, in 1990, CARB again tried to force a switch to electric vehicles (EVs) in place of oil-dependent gasoline and diesel – this time with new concerns about climate change in as a driving force. On this occasion, the oil and auto industries dug in their heels – while making seemingly disingenuous efforts to produce a few thousand electric cars – and then managed to roll back the entire mandate of electric vehicles as a failure. The cars that had actually been built were almost all scrapped, leaving behind, as the main legacy of this effort, the powerful but plaintive 2006 documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” narrated by Martin Sheen.
From 1970 to 2020, CARB waged a steady and successful lobbying campaign that persuaded or coerced the auto industry to gradually clean up its regular combustion engines. In 2020, the average California car emitted just 1% more pollution than its 1970 predecessor. To do this, CARB and environmental supporters in Congress fought battle after battle with the oil and auto industries. . California regulators won and fought to retain — and then, under Donald Trump, briefly lost — the right to set stricter standards than those imposed by the federal government. That waiver was just reinstated by the Biden administration, and over the years 17 other states have chosen to adopt California’s cleaner car standards over the EPA’s less stringent ones. California’s privilege is under attack again, this time through a legal challenge by a group of Republican attorneys general.
Even with this undeniable progress, the state’s burgeoning population and the increasing number of miles they travel in ever larger and more powerful vehicles means that the five most polluted counties in the United States are in California. , including Los Angeles County, with its population of approximately 10 million people and 8 million cars. Although other factors contribute to pollution, the most important remains motor vehicles.
In other words, for the past 50 years, California has tried to do the impossible – solve its smog problem and fight climate change by cleaning gas-powered vehicles. The fact is that internal combustion engines are simply incompatible with healthy air, and we also now understand that they pose the greatest remaining threat to a livable climate.
Beginning in 2012, as technical limits for cleaning gasoline and diesel engines were reached and carbon dioxide emissions became increasingly the focus of the pollution control effort, CARB began setting requirements that “zero-emission vehicles” should meet. a small but steadily growing percentage of vehicle sales.
This time the automotive technology was ready and some in the automotive industry saw it coming. There were already alternatives on the market. Toyota began selling the Prius, initially only as a gas-electric hybrid, in 1997. In 2004, Elon Musk created the premium electric vehicle market with the 100% battery-powered Tesla.
Ironically, Tesla’s rise to global prominence was greatly accelerated by Toyota’s 2010 decision to sell its Fremont, California assembly plant to Tesla instead of moving Prius manufacturing there. . Tesla’s rapid ramp-up, thanks to the new factory, has enabled the auto industry to meet CARB’s growing electric vehicle mandate. Other automakers, including Nissan, have started exploring the electric vehicle market. All of these changes allowed CARB to set bolder goals and encouraged California’s partner states in the fight for clean vehicles to join as well. Pressure began to build for a complete and permanent elimination of internal combustion engines, culminating in the historic new CARB regulations.
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This time around, the attitude of the auto industry is surprisingly different. Automakers have seen the writing on the wall for some time, and many are ready or even eager to embrace a clean vehicle future. Most major automakers are on track to phase out gasoline and diesel vehicles, both globally and in the United States. Ford has announced that 40% of its global sales will be electric vehicles by 2030, and GM has announced that it already plans to phase out internal combustion engines by 2035, the same timeline that California regulations envision. . Volkswagen, the world’s second largest automaker after Toyota, plans to stop selling petrol cars in Europe in 2033. Audi, VW’s luxury car subsidiary, recently announced that it will stop designing new petrol engines or diesel from model year 2026.
Ford says 40% of its global sales will be electric vehicles by 2030 – and has 200,000 buyers on the waiting list for its electric F-150. GM plans to phase out internal combustion engines by 2035 and just announced a $30,000 all-electric SUV.
To a large extent, these are obvious changes in the market: consumers are embracing electric cars. At least one million are already on the road in California, and so far this year about one in six cars sold has an electric drivetrain. Some observers doubted Ford would find buyers for its new F-150 Lightning, the all-electric version of its wildly popular pickup. A few weeks after its release, Ford’s waiting list for the truck was capped at 200,000. Just this week, GM announced production of an all-electric version of the Chevy Equinox SUV with a price tag of around $30,000, which will make it one of the cheapest electric vehicles on the market.
However, major hurdles remain when it comes to including everyone in this crucial transition. Rural dwellers, residents of large cities and low-income families will need access to affordable charging networks that currently do not exist. Loans and financing to buy or lease electric vehicles should be as affordable as normal car loans. The Automotive Innovation Alliance notes that a successful transition away from gasoline will depend on a range of external factors, including “charging and fuel infrastructure, supply chains, labor -work, [and] critical availability of minerals. CARB’s work is not finished with this historic announcement, and the broader work of federal, state and local governments has only just begun.
But let’s take a moment to appreciate this achievement. At a time when most regulators are being progressively captured by those they were meant to oversee, CARB’s 50-year battle against air pollution and climate-destroying emissions stands out as a stellar exception that deserves to be celebrated. Beginning with smog scientist Ari Haagen-Smit as its first president, and beyond my friend Mary Nichols’ 23-year tenure (including 13 as president), CARB has been protected by a series of governors. Californians on both sides and made up of people who have kept their eyes for half a century on a seemingly impossible prize: to free California, and ultimately all of America, from the curse of automobile pollution.
by Carl Pope on climate and energy
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