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Policies promoting electric and zero-emission vehicles are gaining momentum in several states, though at the federal level, neither party’s presidential nominee has plans to phase out gas-powered cars completely.
Last month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) set a goal of selling only electric cars in the state by 2035, a call that is also being supported by New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection.
Electric vehicles currently make up just a small share of cars sold in the U.S., and advocates say more needs to done at both the state and national level.
“People do turn over their cars every seven, eight, nine years … You have an opportunity with natural turnover, natural attrition, to help switch out this technology and make a marked impact on carbon,” said Pam Frank, CEO of ChargEVC, which advocates for electric vehicle-supporting policies at the state level.
Frank said that turnover rate makes it easier to make a difference by electrifying vehicles compared to things like space heating.
“We kind of tackle the thing we can do first where the technology is available, where the natural adoption makes sense,” she said.
Neither President Trump nor Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has proposed a deadline for the American automotive market to go electric-only, though Biden has put forward plans calling for expanded electric vehicle manufacturing and infrastructure.
In the U.S., transportation emits the most planet-warming gases out of any sector: 28 percent of greenhouse gas emissions as of 2018.
Last month, California became the first state to set a target for transitioning away from the sale of gas-fueled cars.
An executive order from Newsom requires all passenger vehicles sold in the state to be zero-emission by 2035 and all medium- and heavy-duty vehicles to be zero-emission by 2045. The California Air Resources Board will develop regulations to implement these targets.
Meanwhile, a regional collaboration of 12 Northeast and mid-Atlantic states, as well as Washington, D.C., are working on a memorandum of understanding that would establish “a regional program to transition to a more sustainable, resilient, lower carbon transportation sector” according to a draft.
Electric vehicles aren’t the only way to accomplish this, but the memorandum draft says that collaborating on policies including electric vehicle-charging infrastructure “will provide greater economic, social and public health benefits to residents and communities across the region than if each jurisdiction acted alone.”
Meanwhile, states such as Maryland and Oregon offer their own incentives for residents to purchase electric vehicles in addition to the federal tax credit of up to $7,500.
“You have to look at the transportation markets and where the emissions nationally are coming from,” Frank said, particularly mentioning the Northeast and the mid-Atlantic. “Certain regions of the country are going to matter more than others in terms of what they adopt and how they adopt and how quickly this transformation is.”
Electric vehicle advocates in Congress, however, also hope to see federal action.
“We’re going to need to do something that’s broad and that accelerates the deployment of these vehicles and we’re also going to create millions of great jobs not only in electric vehicles but all throughout the clean energy infrastructure,” said Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.).
Levin is one of the sponsors of a bill that was introduced in the House and Senate last week that would seek to phase out gas-powered car sales in the U.S. by 2035, including making half the market zero-emissions by 2025.
It’s a far cry from the current numbers. The U.S. sold about 327,000 plug-in electric vehicles last year, compared to 17.1 million light-duty vehicles overall.
The legislation faces an uphill battle with the Republican-held Senate and White House, but its commitments are also beyond what Biden has proposed if he wins the presidency next month.
“We have to lay out the vision and then work to bring people on board, so I’m laying out the vision,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the bill’s Senate sponsor.
Merkley said perception has changed since he first proposed ending the sale of gas-powered cars by 2040 as part of legislation that would have transitioned the country to 100 percent clean energy by 2050.
“When I did that … it was a crazy idea to people, and after I laid out that idea to stop selling fossil fuel cars, nation after nation started looking at this issue,” he said.
Biden calls for working with states and cities to deploy more than 500,000 electric vehicle public charging outlets by the end of 2030.
He also calls for all new American-built buses to be zero-emissions by 2030 and focusing research and development on battery technology that can be used in electric vehicles.
Trump said during last month’s presidential debate that he’s “all for electric cars” though his administration has proposed ending the federal electric vehicle tax credit and has questioned the legality of California’s executive order.
Trump also recently touted a new electric vehicle from Lordstown Motors during a trip to Ohio, which Levin says is reason for optimism.
“I think that it’s good that we see these vehicles not as somehow political or partisan,” he said. “Everyone wants cleaner air.”