We Need Clean Cars as Soon as Possible

To avert dangerous climate change, we must act quickly and boldly. When it comes to transportation, now the biggest source of carbon pollution in the U.S., there are lots of options but two basic things must be: making gasoline-powered vehicles cleaner and more fuel-efficient and accelerating the transition to an electricity-powered fleet. We need to do both, and not follow those who would undercut what we can accomplish today while offering weak promises for the future.  

Step 1: Clean up Gasoline-Powered Autos

Today, only about 2 percent of new automobile sales are plug-in electric vehicles; leaving roughly 98 percent powered by gasoline or diesel. Given the great reliance on gasoline vehicles, it’s imperative that clean car and fuel economy standards are continually strengthened, not rolled back as the Trump administration has proposed.

Fortunately, we have the technology to make gasoline cars go farther on a gallon of gas and dramatically cut their pollution. And we should deploy things like lower emission and more efficient fuel injection engines and higher speed transmissions to all vehicles as soon as possible.

The recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that we are running out of time to reduce carbon pollution and big reductions are needed within a decade to keep global warming limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Cutting pollution from the roughly 17 million gas cars sold each year will help in a big way.

Step 2: Accelerate Electric Vehicles

Electric vehicles are the cleanest cars today and the only vehicles that can become cleaner over time. That’s because as the share of low-cost wind and solar energy increases on the grid, the plug-in vehicles will become greener and greener.

And we are nearing a significant milestone: This year marks the sale of 1 million plug-in electric vehicles (EVs) in the U.S. We’ve gone from just two EV models in showrooms eight years ago to more than 50 options this year. Batteries—the main component driving EV purchase prices—have dropped in cost by 80 percent and further gains are coming with higher volumes.

The federal EV tax credit has been instrumental in helping the United States lead the world in EV manufacturing—creating jobs, maintaining our global competitiveness, and expanding consumer choice in the auto market. Unfortunately, the way it is currently structured cuts out market leaders. To encourage them to continue building out their domestic supply chains, Congress should revamp and extend the EV tax credit, and there are Democratic and Republican proposals out there right now to do just that. Letting the credit phase out now threatens U.S. global leadership in this sector just as other countries are making aggressive moves to capture more market share.

But the progress we’ve seen in EVs owes much to the states. For decades, California’s Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program pushed automakers to produce and sell vehicles with no tailpipe pollution. Now we are seeing the fruit of that innovative spirit that was fueled by the need to clean up smog-filled cities. Other states are following suit, helping build out the electric charging infrastructure and offering their own requirements for cleaner vehicles.

National ZEV

Senators Jeff Merkley and Sheldon Whitehouse understand both the value of state clean car standards and the gravity of the IPCC climate warnings. They just introduced a bill to create a national ZEV program that would require 50 percent of automobile sales be electric by 2030 and 100 percent EV sales by 2040. This is bold. It would help ensure the U.S. is doing its part to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.  

Importantly, the Merkley and Whitehouse proposal would build on the existing state programs—leaving them in place to drive future innovation—and allow for concurrent strong clean car and fuel economy standards for gasoline-powered vehicles. This is a crucial component. A plan to increase sales of zero-emission vehicles cannot be pursued while also undercutting the current tailpipe standards.

General Motors, on the other hand, has used its much-hyped plan for a national ZEV program as a way to undercut existing clean car programs. Ironically, GM’s ZEV plan is included in comments to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation in which the company supported dramatically weakening the existing clean car and fuel economy standards. GM’s ZEV proposal is a distraction from its on-going efforts to undermine cleaner vehicles.  

GM’s proposal would preempt California and other state ZEV programs but would not deliver additional electric vehicles according to researchers at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Essentially, GM’s proposal would set us backward in the fight against climate change while also removing the authority of states that want to give us a fighting chance.

We can’t get distracted. We know the two steps to cleaner cars and healthier air. We just need to follow them.

About the Authors

Luke Tonachel

Director, Clean Vehicles and Fuels Group, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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