By Emmett Chan
SACRAMENTO, CA — The California Air Resources Board (CARB) announced on Aug. 25 its ban on new sales of gasoline cars and light trucks by 2035, an ambitious measure stemming from governor Gavin Newsom’s 2020 Executive Order N-79-20.
However, these requirements are not yet in effect, because they require approval from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
It is at this point—as the prospective gas car ban awaits confirmation—that American citizens begin to seriously consider whether such a ban would be beneficial.
CARB’s announcement groups electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as ZEVs, separating them from PHEVs, but places certain restrictions on the sales of PHEVs:
“PHEVs must have an all-electric range of at least 50 miles under real-world driving conditions. In addition, automakers will be allowed to meet no more than 20% of their overall ZEV requirement with PHEVs.”
While ZEVs may have zero tailpipe emissions, the processes needed to fuel and produce ZEVs still cause emissions.
EVs release energy without combustion and burn no fuel, so they emit no carbon dioxide while being driven.
However, economist Vaclav Smil deems EVs “battery vehicles reflecting the electricity’s origins” to highlight that the power needed to charge EVs comes from electricity grids that are often at least partially based on fossil fuels.
By the same token, the production and transportation of hydrogen fuel generates emissions, even though hydrogen fuel cell vehicles produce no emissions themselves.
Also, cars themselves—regardless of their energy source—are contributors to pollution, Smil explains.
“Indirect energies going into the production of steel, plastics, glass and batteries are still mostly fossil fuels, because the world’s primary energy use is now still 83% dependent on fossil carbon.”
Moreover, additional energy is needed to create an EV’s battery, meaning that EV production generates more emissions than production of gas cars.
However, ZEVs are far superior to gasoline vehicles in terms of their environmental impact.
In general, EVs still produce less carbon pollution than gas cars when accounting for the electricity used for charging, meaning that they cause less emissions over their lifetime—including the manufacturing process.
Specifically, California’s electricity is 60 percent derived from renewable sources, further cementing EVs as greener alternatives to traditional vehicles.
As for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, the Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) found that among the most common processes for hydrogen fuel production and transportation, eight out of ten reduced greenhouse gas emissions relative to gas vehicles.
In many ways, CARB’s prospective gas car ban is promising in terms of reducing drivers’ reliance on petroleum gas, and eventually ushering in a full transition to ZEVs and PHEVs.
“California has good reason to want to speed up its transition to electric vehicles (EVs),” an Economist article claims. “The state is car-crazy. About 41% of its greenhouse-gas emissions come from transport, compared with 27% nationally.”
There are three primary options to help phase out gas vehicles:
Taxing carbon emissions from gas cars would function as a “carbon price.”
Subsidies would require the state government to help pay for ZEVs and ZEV infrastructure to incentivize their production and sales.
Prospective bans, like CARB’s, set deadlines for the ban to be met at future dates.
“It is easy to see why politicians are attracted to prospective bans,” explains The Economist’s finance & economics section. “They sound tough and neither impose immediate hardship on consumers, as a carbon price would, nor drain the treasury, as subsidies do.”
Not only is the ban prospective, allowing for an adjustment period, it intends to incrementally increase the proportion of ZEVs, acknowledging that the adjustment period will be difficult. It provides stages of transition, rather than expecting sudden change.
Reuters reports: “The rules mandate that 35% of the new cars sold be plug-in hybrid electric (PHEV), EVs or hydrogen fuel cell by 2026. That proportion will rise to 68% by 2030 and 100% by 2035.”
Hydrogen fuel cell cars are promising, but their availability and infrastructure is in its early stages. Thus, the discussion around CARB’s gas car ban centers primarily around electric vehicles.
While EV infrastructure—namely, charging stations—is far more developed, it must be greatly expanded in order to accommodate a transition from gas cars.
But without a form of stimulus, such as a ban, The Economist explains that “charging stations are subject to a chicken-and-egg problem: when there are few electric cars on the road, there is little incentive to build new stations, which in turn depresses demand for the vehicles.”
A ban would resolve this dilemma by promising the eventual elimination of petrol vehicle production—new stations could be built knowing that electric vehicles will become increasingly common on the road.
Other aspects of infrastructure would also be shifted toward EVs, The Economist adds: “Carmakers may feel more comfortable shifting the bulk of their r&d spending towards electric vehicles, for instance, and mechanics might start preparing to service electric cars. Meanwhile, the investment in services linked to petrol-powered vehicles would shrink rapidly.”
However, most of the ban’s benefits depend on the firm expectation that gas cars will be eliminated.
If manufacturers do not have full confidence that the state government will go through with the gas car ban, they may not make the necessary changes—and there are reasons to doubt the firmness of the ban.
A Washington Post opinion piece argues: “First, the rule relies on a federal waiver that allows California to set its own emissions standards. The Trump administration rescinded that waiver in 2019, and though President Biden reinstated it in March, a future Republican administration can always decide to revoke it once again. The waiver also could be challenged in the courts.”
Opposition such as judicial challenges to the waiver could be easily triggered if the ban were to be enacted.
The Economist cites an incredibly similar situation, providing strong precedent for rules regulating ZEV sales being changed when manufacturers did not change in time:
“A mandate introduced by Californian regulators in 1990, specifying that zero-emission vehicles should account for 2% of annual sales by 1998, rising to 10% by 2003, was revised substantially in 1996 when it became clear that the cost and performance of batteries were not improving fast enough to meet the targets.”
The manufacturers may have simply been unable to develop the technology, or intentionally limited their spending on the project in hopes of getting the rules changed.
Either of these possibilities could easily emerge following the gas ban.
EVs need to make the drastic transition from 16 percent of new automobile sales to at least 80 percent—because PHEVs can be 20% of ZEV sales—in less than 15 years.
But the Washington Post opinion piece observes, “Though manufacturers are working on more affordable options, they have been slow to build models for non-luxury segments of the market.”
The piece also highlights infrastructural challenges that make the ban’s expectation unrealistic, even if manufacturers were to attempt in earnest:
“California has 80,000 charging stations, the most in the country, but is falling behind its target of 250,000 by 2025. The bipartisan infrastructure bill allocated $7.5 billion for states to build up this infrastructure, and Californian regulators hope the promise of a guaranteed market will incentivize private actors to do more. But there is a lot to be done, particularly in rural areas. There are also concerns over supply chain stability for materials such as the lithium used in batteries.”
A NPR article elaborates on the chain supply issues, explaining that “China currently dominates the rare earth mineral market and the auto industry has long relied on the country to source EV batteries.”
“Something in the order of about 90% of the lithium that’s used in batteries is processed in China right now, which is not a desirable situation,” says Sam Abuelsamid, an analyst with Guidehouse Insights.
If some or all of the deadlines are not met—for instance, if by 2026 the state does not reach the 35% benchmark—no amount of belief will allow the CA government to wish its vehicle emissions goals into existence.
The state will have to cave and revise the law or force a penalty—perhaps a substantial fine—on manufacturers. Either outcome is suboptimal.
The Washington Post suggests “an ambitious, steadily rising price on fuels would encourage the transition to electric vehicles and greener public transportation systems without the downsides of a regulatory ban.”
The Economist agrees, considering “a carbon tax, which would induce a complete transition to electric vehicles” as ideal.
But the tax should give the state more time to adjust, it should rise in more gradual increments—but not slowly enough to enable inaction. Creating a more realistic yet pressing timeline would encourage firmer action.