California Ready to Take Action on Clean Transportation after Climate Summit

, research and deputy director, Clean Vehicles | September 19, 2018, 1:18 pm EST
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With last week’s Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco all wrapped up, it’s time to get down to the business of turning words into actions.  And next week, California is poised to do just that.  The California Air Resources Board agenda for next Thursday and Friday is chock-full of transformative policies that, if adopted, will accelerate deployment of electric cars and transit buses, increase electric charging and hydrogen refueling infrastructure, bring more low carbon alternatives to diesel and gasoline to the state, and ensure consumers in California and the 12 other states that follow California’s standards continue to have cleaner, more efficient vehicle choices.

Transportation emissions – the pollution from cars, trucks, buses, planes, ships and trains – are proving to be stubborn.  They’ve been increasing and becoming a larger portion of economy-wide emissions. They are now over 40 percent of California’s climate pollution. They are stubborn in part because vehicles stay on the road for a long time.  So even though standards that bring more efficient gasoline vehicles and EVs to market are very effective, they only apply to new vehicles. And new cars aren’t purchased like cell phones. Cars can last 15 years or more which means replacing all the cars on the road today with new ones takes time. Looking beyond passenger vehicles is also essential.  About 70% of transportation emissions in California are from passenger cars and trucks. The rest come from other types of vehicles and the fuels they burn.

California transportation emissions are more than 40% of the state’s total and are on the rise

There is no silver bullet solution policy on transportation, so a combination of coordinated and complementary policies is our best bet. The issues before the California Air Resources board meeting this month demonstrate this multi-prong approach in action.  Here are three of them:

  1. Extension of the Low Carbon Fuel Standard to 2030

The Low Carbon Fuel Standard requires gasoline and diesel fuel providers to reduce the carbon content of the fuel they sell in California. The current standard requires reducing the carbon intensity by 10 percent by 2020.  The board is set to vote on September 27th to strengthen the standard to require a 20% reduction in carbon intensity by 2030.  What’s the big deal?  This policy isn’t just about blending lower carbon biofuels like ethanol or renewable diesel into petroleum-based fuels. It’s also about expanding cleaner fuel choices like electricity and hydrogen that are needed to power zero emission vehicles.

The board isn’t just considering raising the bar on this policy, but considering some important changes designed to accelerate deployment of electric vehicle solutions, including:

Establish a statewide rebate program for electric vehicles funded by the clean fuel credits earned through vehicle charging. This comes at a critical time when some companies like Tesla and GM are starting to hit the cap on the federal EV tax credit.

Support electric vehicle charging and hydrogen fueling station deployment by providing financial incentives to station developers. This will help accelerate investments and help get California on the path to reach Gov Brown’s goal of 250,000 vehicle chargers and 200 hydrogen stations by 2025.

My colleague Jeremy Martin explains all of this in his recent blog post about how the Low Carbon Fuel Standard is clearing the roadblocks to electric vehicles. But the bottom line is that the Low Carbon Fuel Standard ensures that the fuels powering our transportation system become cleaner over time and, in the process, provides direct incentives for the clean vehicles and fueling infrastructure we need to make it happen.

  1. Requiring electric transit buses

Ever ride on a battery electric transit bus? If you’ve ridden a bus in China, the answer is likely ‘yes’. They’ve deployed more than 400,000 electric buses over the last few years. Modern battery electric and fuel cell powered buses are starting to gain traction in the U.S. and several transit agencies are making moves to deploy the technology. The Innovative Clean Transit standard being heard by CARB on September 28th is aimed at accelerating that transition and making every bus in California either hydrogen or electricity powered by 2040.  That seems like a long way off, but that means transit agencies need to start buying electric buses now, and before 2030, 100% of their new bus purchases will need to be zero tailpipe emission buses.  This standard will ensure that transit agencies in California are all moving forward together and transit riders around the state get the benefits of a quieter, cleaner bus ride. And the communities these buses operate get the benefit  of zero-tailpipe emissions . It will also help further advance electric drive in the heavy-duty vehicle sector paving the way for more electric trucks.

My colleague Jimmy O’Dea covers the finer details in his recent blog post and UCS’s recent Got Science Podcast on electric buses.

  1. Defending California clean car standards from Trump administration attacks

California has its own vehicle standards for cars and trucks, which 12 other states and the District of Columbia follow. California has had vehicle emission standards for decades, bringing huge benefits to the state as well as other states that follow the same rules. The rest of the country as a whole has also benefited as clean car technology, driven by California’s leadership, (the catalytic converter comes to mind).  The federal clean car standards are currently very similar to California’s standards and, as a result, California has accepted automaker compliance with federal standards as compliance with their own.

The board is proposing a change to California vehicle standards to further clarify that California will only accept compliance with the federal standards as they are currently written.  This is not a change in policy. California never signed-up to throw its authority to regulate vehicle emission out the window by accepting compliance with federal standards, whatever they may be.  And now that the Trump administration has made their intentions to freeze the standards in place at 2021 levels clear, California is simply clarifying that California standards will indeed be enforced.

Ideally, federal and California standards would remain aligned and continue to push forward on making new cars and trucks cleaner, more efficient and more affordable to drive. But barring an unforeseen change in the Trump administration’s anti-science agenda, that seems unlikely.  Making this regulatory language clarification makes it crystal clear that California intends to exercise its right to protect its residents from car and truck pollution as it always has.

The way forward

As with any change there is resistance. Oil companies have long attacked the low carbon fuel standard and automakers have resisted vehicle standards for decades. Many transit agencies are cautious about making the shift to electric buses.  But make no mistake: these changes are feasible and they are necessary if we are to succeed in preventing the worse consequences of climate change. The proposals before the Air Resources Board are based on extensive analysis and have been thoughtfully developed and deliberated and should be advanced.

There are over 25 million cars on the road in California – the vast majority of which are filled up with gasoline or diesel.  Transitioning to a clean, modern, low-emissions transportation system isn’t going to be easy.  There’s just no “one and done” strategy.  Each of the items before the board next week are substantial on their own and taken together they are a big step forward in reshaping California’s transportation system to deliver the clean air and stable climate California needs, while setting an example the rest of the country and the world can benefit from and follow.

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