California Air Resources Board ZEV decision puts us on the road to solving global warming

This election season, the issue of “just words” has been hotly debated. Do words like “zero emissions” matter when it comes to solving pollution problems? Of course. But equally as important are the facts. To the environment, “zero emissions” are just words unless we have the clean cars on the road.

Perhaps this was the question on minds of the Board members when the California Air Resources Board (“Air Board”) voted last Thursday (3/27) to change its landmark Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) program. Originally conceived of in 1990, the California ZEV program has morphed over time from just an electric car mandate to incorporate a broad spectrum of clean, advanced technology vehicles, such as hybrids. 2008 required another tune up based on the opinion of the Air Board’s own independent technology review panel which said that fuel cells cars are not ready for mass commercialization.

But the Air Board adroitly recognized that reducing the number of fuel cell cars does not necessarily mean weakening the program. While they reduced the number of fuel cell vehicles required from 25,000 to 7500 in the 2012 to 2014 period, for every fuel cell vehicle reduced, they required automakers to produce over three times more plug-in hybrid vehicles.  That is, they reduced the fuel cell requirement by 17,500 cars, but strengthened the program by requiring 58,000 plug-in hybrids. That’s a net gain of 40,500 zero emission technology cars on the road. And since over a dozen other states either have the California Low Emission and ZEV programs or are in the process of adopting them, these numbers could be multiplied by a factor three for the nation as a whole.

While it’s true that plug-in hybrids are not truly zero emissions, they will also be affordable and have broad market appeal. This makes them very attractive to consumers which in turn means more clean vehicles on the road. More clean vehicles on the road means less smog emissions, global warming pollution, and oil consumption. Assuming that using hydrogen or electricity to replace gasoline gets from 50 to 80 percent greenhouse gas reductions and plug-in hybrid reduces emissions by 40 to 50 percent, then the change actually produces 70 to 340  percent more global warming pollution reductions across the fleet. This is about 70,000 to 150,000 additional metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2014 alone.

Our joint analysis clearly shows that plug in hybrid vehicles coupled with a cleaner electricity grid can be a key part of our strategy to cut global warming pollution by 80 percent by 2050, the level which scientists tell us is necessary to avert dangerous global warming. Scientists also tell us we can’t wait any longer to start reducing global warming pollution. That means we can’t wait for the perfect solution. We have to get as many zero emission technology vehicles on the road as soon as possible. That’s why plug in hybrids, which face no infrastructure hurdle and just one technical challenge (a reliable affordable battery), is one of our best hopes in the next decade for a massive scale up of clean vehicle technologies.

Zero means zero. Those are important words. But equally important are the facts. More clean vehicles mean less pollution.  To meet California’s ambitious global warming targets, California needs to match its strong words with the right actions. By requiring plug-in hybrids, the Air Board has done just that.