The U.K. plans to ban new fossil-fuel-powered cars by 2030. The Netherlands and Germany have the same goal. Now the state of Washington plans to follow, making it the first in the U.S. to move as quickly to phase out polluting cars. In nine years, if you want to buy a new car or light truck in Washington, it will have to be electric.
“When you really look at the issue, there’s not any single factor that would prevent a state from doing it,” says Matthew Metz, co-executive director of Coltura, a nonprofit that led a coalition of organizations in the state that started advocating for a new bill in 2017, after seeing how European policies were changing. “Given that we’re in a climate crisis, and that we’re way below our targets, in terms of reducing emissions, this is actually a pretty credible path for taking care of a lot of those emissions.” The bill, which sets a target for all model-year-2030 passenger vehicles to be electric, just passed the legislature and is expected to be signed by the governor.
In the state, as in the U.S. overall, emissions from vehicles now have a bigger carbon footprint than anything else. Ironically, the bill doesn’t talk about emissions because of a quirk in the Clean Air Act that means that states can’t set stricter emissions standards than the federal government. (California is the exception, because it had emissions standards in place to combat its smog problems before the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970.)
Instead of talking about climate change, the bill talks about the other reasons to shift to electric cars. The billions that residents spend on gas each year go out of state, because the state doesn’t produce gas; electric cars can run on locally generated electricity, a large percentage of which is renewable. Consumers can save money on fuel. The electric grid can be more stable with a large number of electric cars, since cars can plug into chargers that pull power at the optimal time or send it back into the grid when needed. A huge amount of water pollution can be avoided: “Roughly the equivalent of a supertanker, like an Exxon Valdez of motor oil, rolls into the Puget Sound every four years, just from the vast amounts of motor oil that drip from cars,” Metz says.
It’s not enough just to give people incentives to buy electric cars, he says. “Buying out old gas cars and replacing them or just subsidizing electric cars, those things are all great, but we need to stop the flow into the pool of cars.” Research shows that it’s feasible to quickly make a full shift for new cars, though older gas cars will still be allowed on roads. Now, advocates want to help other states do the same. California plans to phase out new gas-powered car sales by 2035, but Metz argues that for many states, the 2030 goal is possible. It’s another signal for automakers, who are already planning to ramp up sales of electric vehicles. “It has a powerful signaling function,” Metz says. “It tells industry, hey, look, the people in Washington State are moving forward, and this is going to come to other states. And it just adds to the desire to invest in EVs.”