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California will ban sale of new ICE cars in 2035. Why not sooner?

California Governor Gavin Newsom has just announced a ban on the sale of new gasoline-powered vehicles starting in 2035. The state will require all new cars and trucks sold after that date to be zero emission vehicles. Californians will still be able to operate gas-powered vehicles after that date, and will still be able to buy and sell used gas cars.

This move is the most aggressive yet-announced in the US, and will have major effects for the auto industry as a whole, given California’s leadership on clean air issues. But the thing is: it should be even more aggressive.

California’s per capita emissions are among the lowest of any state. Californians emit, on average around 9 tons of CO2 per year, while the US emits around 16 tons of CO2 annually per person.

But an outsized percentage of California’s emissions come from transportation — while 28% of the US’ emissions come from transportation, 41% of California’s emissions do (2017 data). And the largest portion of those transportation emissions comes from personal vehicles.

So if California wants to reduce emissions, the best way to do so is by targeting personal vehicles. Especially since California has a Clean Air Act “waiver” which lets them set their own clean air rules and results in thirteen other states adopting those rules automatically. These states represent about a third of the US population, so essentially, how goes California, so goes the nation.

Other states have proposed more aggressive bans than this (2030 in Washington and Hawaii, to name a couple), but none have been put into place yet. California had previously considered banning gas cars by 2040, making this ban even more aggressive than its previous idea. Los Angeles, the largest city in California, has proposed a gas car ban by 2030 (the city is also hosting the Olympics in 2028 – which would be a good opportunity/deadline to show the world it’s serious about this).

But here’s the rub: California is currently on fire in some of the largest wildfires the state has ever seen. High temperature records were broken all over the state a few weeks ago. Fire season gets longer and more destructive every year. And this is happening around the globe as well, with apocalyptic fires hitting Australia and Brazil in the past year, among other extreme weather events.

These are things happening now, not 15 years from now. These disasters are man-made, and they are being exacerbated by the warming of our planet, and that warming is being caused by the burning of oil for transportation, more than it is by any other activity.

So with this move, do we resign ourselves to another 15 years of expanding fire seasons? 15 years with millions of people choking to death on pollution annually and children getting asthma, both from the cars’ tailpipes themselves and from the smoke caused by massive wildfires? 15 years of locked-in climate change which will continue to affect this world and all the species on it even after that 15 year period is up?

And even after those 15 years, the cars will still be operating. Those cars will continue spewing pollution into all of our lungs for years down the line. An ICE car purchased new in 2034 might last into the 2050s, and you’ll be breathing the poison from it for most of the rest of your life.

But maybe all of that won’t matter. Electric car sales are growing rapidly, and like other new technologies, change can happen faster than anyone expects. Only a decade ago, “early adopters” were the only people to own a smartphone – and now more than half of the globe does.

This shows another way that this ban is somewhat feckless – it’s unlikely that many people in California will want to buy an ICE car after 2035 anyway. As electric cars come to dominate the state, gasoline filling stations (which already run very low margins) will be forced out of business, making gasoline more inconvenient than it already is. And hopefully, California and other jurisdictions will finally get around to putting a price on carbon pollution so gas cars have to pay for some of the $5 trillion in subsidies they get globally each year.

Finally, California has set mediocre targets and beat them before. The state planned to reduce total emissions to 1990 levels, down from its 2004 peak, by 2020. They managed to meet and exceed that goal, reaching it in 2016. So maybe California will manage to do the same thing again with gas cars – and reach effectively zero sales prior to 2035.

But if that’s the case, why set the target? As they say, “shoot for the moon, as even if you miss, you’ll land amongst the stars.” This ban could and should be more aggressive, and should act to influence the industry and consumer behavior into more rapid change than would come naturally. In Electrek’s view, it’s already a bad idea to buy a new gas car. Between pollution, the convenience of charging, and even simple financial reasons such as the likely future plummeting of residual values, it just doesn’t make sense to put a gas engine in your driveway today for the vast majority of people.

So why are we pretending anyone will think it’s a good idea as late as 2035? Let’s beat California’s target, and let’s put better ones in place — not just in California, but around the world.

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Avatar for Jameson Dow Jameson Dow

Jameson has been driving electric vehicles since 2009, and has been writing about them and about clean energy for since 2016.

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