California regulators last week approved a plan to ban the sale of gas-powered cars in the state by 2035, setting an aggressive timeline for reducing the use of fossil fuels that contribute to climate change.
A nationwide transition from gas-powered cars to electric vehicles is widely viewed as an essential step toward meeting the country’s long-term emissions reduction goals. And though the market has expanded substantially in the past few years, electric vehicles still make up less than 1 percent of the estimated 250 million cars, trucks and SUVs on the road in the U.S.
Even in California, which has more than five times as many electric cars as any other state, zero-emission vehicles account for only about 16 percent of total car sales. The new rules will require automakers to gradually increase the share of EVs sold — to 35 percent in 2026 and 68 percent by 2030 — while imposing hefty financial penalties on companies that fall short of those benchmarks. The policy applies only to new cars and does not apply to consumers. After 2035, it will still be legal to own a gas-powered car in the state, buy one used or purchase one from out of state.
California has long been a trendsetter for other blue states when it comes to climate policy. These new regulations appear to be no different. More than a dozen states are expected to adopt their own versions of the Golden State’s gas car ban. Some even have laws that require them to match California’s emissions rules. One of them is Virginia, where recently elected Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin has vowed to prevent what he called the “ridiculous edict” from being put in place despite apparently being legally bound allow it under the terms of a law signed by his Democratic predecessor last year.
Why there’s debate
Supporters of the policy believe this could be exactly what the U.S. needs to jump-start a transition to cleaner transportation sources. They say California is so large and influential that its policies will force automakers to follow through on their oft-stated plans to end production of fossil-fuel-burning cars — a shift that will change the car market even in states where the bans aren’t in place. Others say the ban will have broad benefits beyond emissions reductions, including saving consumers money on gas and maintenance, reducing harmful air pollution and expanding the availability of EV-charging infrastructure outside of major cities.
But some climate activists say the policy isn’t nearly aggressive enough to meet the scale of the challenge posed by climate change. They argue that the U.S. shouldn’t wait 13 years to ban gas cars, especially since many gas-powered cars that were bought new in 2034 will still be on the road a decade later. Others say that as much of an improvement as EVs are, the real solution is to move away from reliance on cars in general.
Conservatives generally reject what they view as heavy-handed government intervention in the free market. They argue that such strict rules could threaten the long-term stability of the U.S. auto industry and deny Americans their right to choose the vehicle that suits their needs best. There are also broad concerns about whether California and other states can overcome the many logistic, technological and potential legal challenges that will need to be conquered for the ban to become a reality.
California can’t officially begin enacting its plan until it’s given a waiver to do so by the Environmental Protection Agency, a step most experts expect to happen without much drama. The EPA’s authority over states’ climate policies could pose a threat to the policy, though, if a Republican reclaims the White House after 2024.
California has put the country on the path to a better, greener future
“This is California’s ‘for all mankind moment,’ a second chance to create an alternate future that we gave up on last time. Our kids and their kids and generations to come will thank us for it.” — Edward Humes, Los Angeles Times
Consumers may not be ready for a complete shift away from gas cars
“The rule can’t force California’s car shoppers to actually buy the new electric vehicles that automakers will now have to offer. And if consumers don’t follow along, that’s a much harder problem to address.” — Lisa Friedman and Brad Plumer, New York Times