There’s a big, buzzy trend sweeping the planet. Countries and municipalities like the United Kingdom, Norway, France, the Netherlands, India, and China have all made a similar pledge: They’re going to kick their gasoline-powered car habit in the next few decades. It is a nice idea, maybe even a world-saving one. The transportation sector accounts for 14 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, which humanity must cut by 40 to 70 percent by 2050 to prevent that disastrous 2-degree Celsius temperature hike.
Which explains why the state of California is shouting Me too! “I’ve gotten messages from the governor asking, ‘Why haven’t we done something already?’” Mary Nichols, head of the California Air Resources Board, told Bloomberg last week. “The governor has certainly indicated an interest in why China can do this and not California.” She said a California ban on the sale of non-electric vehicles is at least a decade away.
Just one little problem. “There is not, in any of these places, policy follow-up to ensure that these goals are met,” says Nic Lutsey, who studies electric vehicle policy at the International Council on Clean Transportation. No plans, no blueprints, no teeth. These pronouncements are the governmental equivalent of pledging to drop 100 pounds without considering details like diet or exercise.
Sure, electric vehicles have come a ways in the last decade. They’re quick. Some of them are cool. Thanks to fast-improving battery tech and charging infrastructure, they can go further and to more places than ever before. Even legacy carmakers like General Motors, Ford, BMW, and Jaguar Land Rover are joining the faithful (Tesla, Nissan) in the burgeoning EV market.
But EVs are still just a bitty fraction of vehicles sold worldwide—4.3 percent in 2016. Charging infrastructure is spreading, but it’s far from everywhere. And even mass market EVs aren’t cheap.
Still, pay attention. “The announcements are hugely important,” says Nic Lutsey, who studies electric vehicle policy at the International Council on Clean Transportation. “They show what governments are thinking and what all their research groups are telling them: that to clean up transportation, to avoid the worst climate change impact, they will need to electrify the fleet. It’s showing that a consensus is clearly emerging.”
The positive news for countries, states, cities, and any other jurisdiction looking to boot the polluters? There is a way forward. The long road to electro-bliss is paved with incentivizing nudges from local governments, international coordination with carmakers; hard-hitting, quota-filled national programs, and a heaping spoonful of consumer education. And the work starts now.
Electric cars may be more expensive than their gas-powered counterparts, but governments around the world have found combinations of carrots and sticks to convince their citizens to go with the plug.
In the Bugs Bunny snack category, Norway’s electric vehicle owners dodge municipal parking charges, purchase and import taxes, and tunnel and ferry fees—a serious money-saver in a nation streaked with fjords. They can charge or refuel their electric and hydrogen cars for free. They get to drive in bus-only lanes. Ha det bra, traffic! The result: More than a quarter of the vehicles sold in Oslo each year are electric. This investment in the future has its cost, of course. “The foregoing of the sales tax of EVs costs Norway a lot of money, but furthered their goals of making them the electric vehicles leaders of the world,” says Costa Samaras, who studies alternative energy at Carnegie Mellon University.
In Shanghai, where 11 percent of 2015 new vehicle sales were electric, buyers receive a $4,400 purchase subsidy. But the biggest money-saver kicks in after the trip to the dealer. To restrict the number of cars on the road, the local government auctions off license plates to the highest bidders; they can fetch as much as $12,000. Electric vehicles get to dodge these auctions, saving their owners big bucks.
For a taste of the stick, look to London. Come 2020, a central swath of the British capital will form an “ultra low emission zone.” Any vehicle that wants in and doesn’t meet stringent emission standards will face a daily charge. (License plate-reading cameras will ensure all wheeled things are in compliance.) Shanghai has a similar plan in place that applies to commercial vehicles.
Finally, places like California hoping to goose electric sales ahead of a gas ban could look to … California, which is ramping up the charging infrastructure that makes EV ownership feasible. “Money is not the only reason people are not buying electric vehicles today,” says Lutsey. “There’s also the convenience.” San Jose, the humming heart of Silicon Valley, is already the fifth most charged-up city in the world, with 500 charge points per million people. San Francisco has about 450 per million. Good, but not good enough. Fortunately, California has a $800 million electric charging windfall coming its way, in the form of a settlement with Volkswagen over its diesel emissions cheating scandal. The money goes straight to the coffers of the California Air Resources Board, which will spread the money out over the next 10 years. Slowly but surely, it should get easier to own an electric vehicle in California. And that makes it easier for California to ban gasoline for good.
Baby steps today are necessary, but they don’t get you out of the long-term work a gas ban requires. China is on the right track. Last week, the world’s largest auto market—where a third of all EVs sold last year found their owners—rolled out a much-anticipated electric vehicle plan. The scheme pushes an aggressive cap-and-trade-like policy that will force foreign and domestic carmakers to up the number of zero- and low-emission vehicles they produce by 2020. (The plan, it should be noted, looks like California’s own ZEV scheme, which forces automakers to build electric models or purchase credits from those doing so.)
These policies are producing results. This week, General Motors announced it would build at least 20 new fully electric vehicle models by 2023, and eventually phase of non-electric vehicles. Volvo is going (mostly) electric. BMW, too. No big automaker can afford to lose access to such lucrative markets.
Way Down the Line
The trickiest part of pulling off this sort of move is doing it without hurting your most vulnerable citizens. In this case, those are the low-income, largely rural folks who rely on the affordability of the internal combustion engine to get them to their jobs, their grocery stores, their community centers. It takes a long time for innovations to trickle down to the country’s poorest households.
“Banning sure could increase the number of electric vehicles on the road, but would sure come at another cost,” says Samaras. “We need to make sure mobility and access at lower income population could be improved.” That means investment in public transportation. A lot of it. Also, consumer education for the folks who know nothing about what driving an electric car entails. Annoyingly, there’s no easy answer for that. “There’s a huge diversity of car buyers,” says Lutsey. “Trying to meet every consumer’s demand is incredibly difficult. You need a car that’s the right brand, the right reputation, the right cost point, the right convenience.”
Maybe that’s why no other American states or government agencies have floated gas car bans. But do not count out California, which has a long history of leading on emissions. As federal legislators tussled over the 1963 Clean Air Act, they wrote in provisions allowing the state to create its own stricter regulations, acknowledging it was already way out ahead on environmental standards. Nine other states have signed onto California’s Zero Emission Vehicle mandate, which means the it controls over a quarter of the American vehicle market. Even if California can’t receive a special waiver from the federal government to ban gas, the state seems to think it can pull it off by manipulating vehicle registration rules or ordering gas vehicles off state highways.
Still, more ideas are needed. Banning fossil fuel gluggers isn’t impossible. But moving them to zero is going to take a lot of strategery. And the game has just begun.
Ushering in the Electric Age
- General Motors is moving toward an all-electric future, starting with 20 new gas-free models by 2023
- Vacuum designer extraordinaire James Dyson wants to sell you an electric car, and he ain’t crazy
- Gogoro, the electric scooter maker with plans to change the world, lands in Japan
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