CA makes progress toward zero-emissions transport, but work remains

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Electrifying the transportation system is a growing focus in California. Amid increasing concerns over climate change, California has already committed to deploying 1 million electric vehicles by 2023 and 5 million by 2030. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Executive Order N-79-20, enacted Wednesday, goes further, establishing a state goal of requiring all new passenger cars sold in California to be zero-emissions by 2035 and all bus and trucks to be zero-emissions by 2045. This order is the most recent in a long history of bold, bipartisan steps over the past three decades toward clean transportation.

Despite California’s reputation as a climate leader, transportation seems to be the state’s Achilles’ heel. Transportation is its leading source of both climate-damaging pollutants as well as health-harming pollutants, such as smog-forming nitrogen oxides and carcinogenic diesel particulate matter.

In fact, California’s air quality problems are so severe that much of the state fails to meet federal air quality standards. Millions of Californians are breathing air so dirty it is illegal. Coupled with other impacts of the climate crisis, such as extreme heat, natural disaster intensification and urban heat islands, the need for action is clear.

Reducing transportation emissions in California will require a comprehensive strategy. First, as Newsom ordered, all types of road vehicles —  from passenger cars to heavy-duty trucks such as big rigs — must become zero-emissions. We’ve already made some regulatory progress in this respect, but hurdles still remain. One challenge to zero-emissions transportation lies in the policies of local governments and ports. For example, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach —  the busiest seaports in California — have stalled an agreement to reduce emissions with the local air district, even though the proposed agreement is based on the ports’ own plans. Similarly, both ports’ efforts to incentivize clean trucks seem to be woefully inadequate.

Cooperation from local governments and air districts is key if the state is to succeed in meeting its climate and air quality commitments. Local governments must execute their land use and other powers to advance rather than hinder emissions reductions, particularly in places where action has faltered.

Similarly, California must maximize the effectiveness of its incentive programs for passenger vehicles, including rebates and financing assistance for new and used vehicles as well as funding to deploy electric vehicle chargers.

Unfortunately, these programs face two seemingly contradictory challenges: public awareness of these programs is limited, meaning not everyone who can take advantage of them does. And yet, these incentive programs are often oversubscribed, reflecting pent-up demand. The state should commit to ensuring the long-term viability of its incentive programs and publicize them to encourage participation.

Furthermore, California must ensure incentive programs serve those who face the most significant barriers to purchasing an electric car. Middle and low-income earners are the most sensitive to a vehicle’s sticker price. Being a middle-income earner myself and having been raised in a low-income family, I understand this sensitivity.

Rather than reinventing the wheel, California can look to existing success stories. Valley Clean Air Now operates a wildly successful repair and replacement program that helps low-income earners and Spanish speakers in the San Joaquin Valley reduce the climate impacts of their vehicles. In Los Angeles, the Liberty Hill Foundation’s emPOWER program has connected residents of disadvantaged communities with energy efficiency, clean mobility and vehicle replacement programs.

Another key issue for the state to consider is electric vehicle charging and fueling — which is perhaps even more difficult than deploying electric vehicles.

Charging and fueling infrastructure is expensive, and in the case of electric charging, local electrical infrastructure must be up to the task. State and local government should commit to streamlining the approval process to rapidly deploy chargers to support the state’s electric vehicle fleet. We must also consider that those living in apartments and without parking or an electrical connection near their car face an additional burden. Ensuring access to public fast charging is key to supporting the state’s electric vehicle fleet. To do so, Newsom could start by signing AB 841, which partly aims to streamline the approval process for electric vehicle chargers.

California should also invest and encourage clean mobility programs statewide, drawing examples from the likes of Sacramento’s Our Community Carshare and Los Angeles’  BlueLA car-share. As traditional car ownership itself begins to change, the state should consider how to anticipate future business models, such as car subscription services, that might further benefit the environment.

Newsom should be lauded for setting a bold zero-emissions goal for transportation in California. By setting in motion a plan to phase out gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles, as well as moving toward a just transition away from the fossil fuel economy, he has shown dedication to California’s climate commitments.

But still, much hard work remains ahead in ensuring this vision becomes a reality and is accessible to all Californians. To realize a zero-emissions future, state leaders must commit not only to setting California down the right path but to seeing that we reach our destination.

Christopher Chavez is the deputy policy director at the Coalition for Clean Air.