California has been the undisputed environmental leader since the 1969 oil spill in the Santa Barbara Channel that ushered in the environmental movement.
In keeping with that legacy, the Legislature recently approved a record $54 billion in climate spending, new restrictions on oil and gas drilling, and mandated that the state stop adding CO2 to the atmosphere by 2045.
Even more important, however, California just started a climate revolution by requiring that all new cars, SUVs and trucks sold in the state be zero-emission vehicles (electrified or hydrogen) by 2035.
While this is reminiscent of the 19th-century transition from the horse to the internal combustion engine, there’s one huge difference: climate change.
Global inaction on reducing greenhouse gas emissions means we will reach the predicted 1.5 Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) “tipping point” increase in global temperature well before midcentury (probably around 2035).
Transportation is the leading single source of greenhouse gases in much of the world: 21% of global emissions, 29% of U.S. emissions and 50% of California’s emissions.
59% of the sector’s emissions come from passenger vehicles. So, it should not come as a surprise that both California and the climate measures in the recently enacted federal “Inflation Reduction Act” both focused on electric vehicles.
The climate measures in the “Inflation Reduction Act,” which will reduce U.S. greenhouse gases by 40% by 2035, rely heavily on promoting electric vehicles and EV charging infrastructure.
The bill awards a $7,500 tax credit when buying a new electric vehicle; new credits of $4,000 or 30% of sale price for used EVs; $7 billion for zero-emission vehicle technologies for low-income communities; and billions of dollars for yet-to-be-defined clean heavy-duty vehicles and alternative fuel (hydrogen, biofuels) vehicles.
Add in President Joe Biden’s executive order targeting 50% electric vehicle sales by 2030, and we find ourselves in the midst of a climate revolution.
The signs are this transition will happen. The European Union backed a similar plan to prohibit the sale of gas and diesel cars by 2035, Canada mandated the sale of zero-emission vehicles by the same year.
In this country, 17 states have adopted California’s stricter-than-federal tailpipe emission standards. Oregon, Washington, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont are expected to follow California.
Moving from the horse to the internal combustion engine was hard. It took 50 years. This one will be harder. While owners of internal combustion engine vehicles will be able to keep them after 2035, and buy them from another state, it’s a rocky road we’re going to travel to get from the policy to reality.
So far this year only 16% of passenger vehicles sold in California were battery-electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles, up from 8% last year.
Electric vehicles are still pricey. While Chevrolet, Honda, Hyundai and Nissan will sell EVs ranging from $26,876 to $34,020, the average EV price ($62,876) is about $15,000 more that the auto industry average. Then there are the issues of parts, labor and infrastructure.
Batteries need to be more affordable. Manufactures say they will be on par with the cost of internal combustion engines by 2025. China currently dominates the rare earth mineral and lithium markets the auto industry relies on for source EV batteries. Auto makers will need engineers with different skill sets, people who design electric motors. EV charging infrastructure will have to be expanded, putting a higher demand on the energy grid.
When put in context, however, these challenges do not compare to the ravages and costs climate change is inflicting on the world. Pakistan is experiencing its worst flooding. China, its worst heat wave. The United States is suffering through droughts, wildfires, tornados and diminished water sources. In just the first half of 2022, natural disasters caused more than $65 billion in U.S. losses.
Any way we look at it, we are in for a rough ride. California, the United States and the world will have to provide more subsides and financial incentives.
At least going through the electric vehicle revolution will help put our natural world back into balance. The horse-auto transition replaced horse manure with smog and CO2 emissions. This change to electrified vehicles will help replace smog and CO2 with clean tailpipe air.
— Environmental lawyer Robert Sulnick represented the community of Casmalia in litigation against the Casmalia Resources Hazardous Waste Landfill, co-founded the American Oceans Campaign with Ted Danson, and is a partner in the Santa Barbara environmental consulting firm Environmental Problem Solving Enterprises. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.