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Can the U.S. curb gas-powered cars by 2040?

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Federal legislation complemented by city policies could help the country go electric for good

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Last week, federal legislation was proposed in both the House of Representatives and the Senate that could radically shift the way the U.S. tackles its climate crisis. The Zero-Emission Vehicles Act would eliminate the sale of gas-powered passenger cars in the U.S. by 2040.

“The climate crisis is a defining issue of our time, and we must pursue bold measures commensurate with the enormous challenge we face,” said Rep. Mike Levin, a Democrat from Southern California, who introduced the bill last Friday with Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat who had proposed a similar bill last year.

“We can combat climate change aggressively, improve public health, and lead the world in manufacturing innovative technology by embracing zero-emissions vehicles at the same time,” Levin said.

As part of the Green New Deal resolution to eradicate fossil fuels from the U.S. economy, the Zero-Emission Vehicles Act complements another zero-emission vehicle proposal in Los Angeles. As part of LA’s Green New Deal, announced in April, Mayor Eric Garcetti is calling for 100 percent of vehicles operating on LA’s streets to be zero-emission by 2050—essentially a ban on buying and operating gas-powered cars.

The deadlines proposed by the Zero-Emission Vehicles Act would put the U.S. roughly on target with France, Britain, Norway, and even much larger countries like India which have pledged to eliminate sales of gas and diesel powered cars in the next five to 15 years. But in Norway, for example, 40 percent of new car sales are electric. U.S. sales are less than 2 percent.

Many more cities, including Madrid, Rome, and Amsterdam, have proposed outright bans on fossil-fuel vehicles, with deadlines set 10 to 15 years out. Copenhagen’s goal is even more aggressive, with a plan for the entire city to become carbon neutral by 2025. Even if people keep their gas-powered vehicles, these cities are already restricting where they can drive them, like London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone, which is gradually phasing out access for its older, most polluting cars from the city center.

The Zero-Emission Vehicles Act is not expected to pass the Senate, where the Republican majority recently voted down the Green New Deal resolution. But it creates a conversation starter for U.S. cities—which already have lower car-ownership rates and better transit access than non-urban areas—that could pick up the slack to help the country achieve its climate goals and improve public health.

Bans on fossil fuel-powered cars stem not just from a desire to curb emissions, but also a need to address worsening air pollution in cities. Last year, the mayors of Paris, Copenhagen, Seoul, and Medellín, Colombia, called for auto manufacturers to immediately end the sale of fossil fuel-powered vehicles after a World Health Organization report that 93 percent of the world’s population under the age of 15 are exposed to dangerously high levels of PM 2.5, a pollutant attributed to vehicle emissions.

“I urge every city to join us and send an unmistakable message to vehicle manufacturers: The health of our children is more important than the health of your profits,” said Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo.

The Zero-Emission Vehicles Act would be enacted by amending the Clean Air Act, which sets guidelines for vehicle emissions, and adding new milestones for auto sales that gradually get to 100 percent zero-emission vehicles. So 50 percent of all vehicles sold in the U.S. would be zero-emission by 2030, increasing by 5 percent per year to reach 100 percent by 2040. (Which is still not fast enough, according to climate scientists.)

Electrifying 25 percent of U.S. transportation could happen within the next five years thanks to recent advances in technology, says Ethan Elkind, director of the climate program at UC Berkeley School of Law’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment and author of the report 100% Zero: Solutions to Achieve Universal Zero-Emission Vehicle Adoption. “It is possible given the range of new battery electric vehicles in the pipeline at various automakers like GM, Volkswagen, Volvo, plus ongoing price decreases and innovations in batteries.”

But those innovations are mostly for passenger sedans. Trucks would be exempt under the bill, as would SUVs, which are classified as “light trucks” and therefore are not subject to fuel-efficiency requirements. This would dramatically lessen the bill’s intended impact, because sales of SUVs have skyrocketed in recent years. By some estimates, SUVs will make up half of all new car sales by 2020.

“The key is more electric SUVs, given current demand, which Kia and Hyundai have just introduced,” says Elkind. Lawmakers could also introduce new policies that might incentivize owning zero-emissions vehicles. Elkind recommends a dramatic expansion of charging infrastructure, changes to the way utilities price electricity for charging sites, more rebates for purchasers, and aggressive reduction of vehicle-miles traveled (VMT).

Those incentives will likely not be introduced by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Trump administration, which has worked to loosen regulations around emissions standards, including a proposed rollback of fuel-efficient vehicles. This week, it was revealed that the EPA wants to change the way deaths from air pollution are calculated, so it can claim burning more fossil fuels will not cause more premature deaths.

Then there’s the brewing legal battle between the EPA and California, which is able to set different fuel-efficiency standards due to a federal waiver that the EPA wants to revoke on the grounds that automakers shouldn’t be required to meet those standards. But this is the direction that most of the U.S. is already heading. Roughly a third of all states—about half the country’s population—are using California’s emissions standards, which has provided a greater incentive for car makers to produce zero-emission vehicles for these states.

Still, the switch to an all-zero-emission car market would require a more rapid response from automakers, which are still developing gas-powered vehicles. (Daimler has floated a pledge to make a carbon-neutral Mercedes-Benz by 2039.) Since Americans are holding onto their cars longer—and a record number of those car owners are dangerously close to defaulting on their car loans—it would take more than two decades for even half of the U.S. fleet to turn over.

“Now is the time for those companies to innovate and move forward with accelerated electric car plans,” writes Electrek’s Phil Dzyiki. “Not to try to drag everyone back into the past and get left behind.”

Although the Zero-Emission Vehicles Act is modeled after California’s stringent emissions policies, what California is doing to electrify transportation still might not be enough. Of California’s 25 million passenger vehicles, about a half-million are zero-emission vehicles, a number that’s gone up 13 percent year over year. But California’s transportation emissions also keep increasing even as overall emissions have decreased, due to people driving more.

Last week, Mary Nichols, the head of California’s Air Resources Board, hinted that the state might need to take more dramatic steps.

“That might mean, for example, tougher requirements for low-carbon fuels, looking at tighter health-protective regulations on California refineries, doubling down on our enforcement efforts on mobile and stationary sources, and might lead to an outright ban on internal combustion engines,” Nichols said.

Getting to zero emissions within 20 years is going to be a challenge in cities that are so heavily car-dependent now. In LA, Garcetti is already implementing comprehensive plans to electrify public transit and ride-hailing services, but now the city must start convincing people who are buying new cars to only buy electric, or opt-in to electric car-sharing services instead of buying cars.

But cities also have the power to shift behavior—provided they make the right investments. Ensuring that 100 percent of LA’s cars are electric is only part of the story. Hitting the Green New Deal’s goals means the overall number of vehicles in the city must also be reduced.

By 2035, at least half of the trips taken by Angelenos on a daily basis must be taken outside private vehicles—meaning the city also has to make sure the other 50 percent of trips are taken by walking, biking and transit. That number right now? Just 14 percent.