Californians buy more electric cars than any other Americans, though plug-ins still only make up a small fraction of new car sales. But the state now plans to accelerate that trend by making it mandatory: By 2035, under a new executive order from the governor, all new passenger vehicles will have to be zero-emissions. People will still be able to drive the gas cars that they already own, but they won’t be able to buy new ones.
“This is the most impactful step our state can take to fight climate change,” California governor Gavin Newsom said in a statement released Wednesday morning. “Our cars shouldn’t make wildfires worse—and create more days filled with smoky air. Cars shouldn’t melt glaciers or raise sea levels threatening our cherished beaches and coastlines.”
Electric cars are already at a turning point. As battery costs drop faster than expected, the sticker price for a new EV will soon be as cheap as, or cheaper than, a conventional car. Electric cars are also cheaper to operate because it costs less to plug them in than refuel, and the design means that cars need less maintenance over time. Electric charging infrastructure will need to increase to make the vehicles convenient to use, but growing that infrastructure is also part of the executive order.
Fifteen countries, along with some cities, also have plans to phase out gas cars. The U.K., for example, which planned to ban the sale of new gas cars by 2040, reportedly plans to move up the deadline to 2030 as part of a green recovery from the pandemic. Amsterdam plans to ban diesel and gas cars within city limits by 2030.
In California, where six of the largest fires in the state’s history have burned this year, the state is moving aggressively to tackle climate change, with a goal to become carbon neutral by 2045. Transportation is currently the state’s largest source of emissions, and it already aimed to put five million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2030. The state has been fighting with the federal government over California’s long-standing waiver, which allowed it to set higher fuel-economy standards than the rest of the country; the new executive order will help get around that problem. “The waiver doesn’t address what it can and cannot sell,” says Katherine Phillips, director of the Sierra Club California. “If the state decides that beyond a certain date you cannot sell polluting vehicles in the state, you don’t need a waiver for that.”
She argues that car companies may not challenge the plan. “I think California has been on a path, and they’ve been pretty overt about this,” she says. “The studies have shown that in order to get to where we need to get, you need to have—we would argue 2030, but let’s live with 2035—you have to have no new [fossil] cars sold in the state past 2035. That’s what the research is showing. The automakers are fully aware of that. And there are five or six automakers, including Ford today, that have come out and overtly embraced the idea that their future in California is going to be all-electric.”
“The good thing about this [executive order] is it’s kind of overtly setting a goal that is similar to what’s been set by some of the European nations,” she says. “China has indicated they’re going to go in that direction. We’re doing what is needed by the Paris Agreement. This is where everybody in the transportation sector is landing. That is, you need to get out of internal combustion engines.”