Will banning gas-powered cars help curb climate change?

Mike Bebernes
·Editor
·5 mins read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

California Gov. Gavin Newsom last week issued an executive order that would ban sales of gas-powered cars in the state by 2035. The move comes as California battles another season of intense wildfires, which have been worsened by the effects of climate change.

“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,” Newsom said.

Passenger vehicles are the No. 1 source of greenhouse gases in California, a state famous for its freeways and commuter culture. California is the first state in the U.S. to formalize the goal of phasing out gas-powered cars. More than a dozen countries — including England, Germany, Sweden and India — have established plans to do so by 2030.

Sales of electric vehicles have grown substantially in the U.S. over the past few years, from less than 18,000 in 2011 to more than 325,000 in 2019. Despite that growth, electric cars made up just 2 percent of new-car sales nationwide in 2018. On average, electric vehicles are 60 percent cleaner than gas-powered vehicles.

Why there’s debate

Transportation accounts for about 40 percent of all global greenhouse emissions. Newsom’s order, and others like it, have been praised by environmental groups as a significant step in the fight to curb climate change. As the nation’s most populous state, California has the unique ability to influence the automobile market and compel carmakers to accelerate their production of zero-emissions vehicles. This pressure could help increase demand for electric cars and drive down prices — especially if other states follow California’s lead, as they’ve done with other environmental policies.

The ban has been met with vocal opposition. Some opponents say the government shouldn’t try to influence the free market. There are also concerns that many consumers won’t be able to afford electric cars, which are more expensive on average, once the ban goes into effect. And there are significant concerns that the power grid may not be able to hold up to the demand created by a nation of electric cars.

The plan has also faced skepticism from environmentalists. Some argue that 15 years is too long given the dire stakes of reducing emissions. There are also doubts about the impact it will have, since many gas-powered cars would remain on the road after 2035 if they were bought used or came from another state. Others say the ban will be effective only if it’s paired with a much larger initiative to build the infrastructure needed to support so many electric cars — like charging stations — and end reliance on fossil fuels for electricity.

What’s next

California is the only state in the country with the authority to set its own emissions standards thanks to the Clean Air Act of 1970, which was passed at the height of the state’s severe smog problem. The Trump administration has sought to revoke that authority. An ongoing court case may decide whether California is allowed to enforce its ban.

Perspectives

Banning gas-powered cars is one of the biggest climate steps we can take right now

“Unlike heavy industry, where the path to zero emissions is technically and financially daunting, we have the tools to make cars much cleaner. From the climate’s perspective, an outright ban on gasoline vehicles can’t come soon enough.” — Chris Bryant, Bloomberg

The ban won’t have a major impact on emissions

“Even if the fleet went electric tomorrow, there are a lot of other sources of emissions including ships, agriculture, even our own households ... and if you’re hoping that pollution will disappear, I’m sorry to say that passenger vehicles account for a very small amount of that.” — Jacob Margolis, KPCC

Bans will help accelerate a trend in the auto industry that’s already happening

“The rise of electric cars and green power are some of the biggest climate success stories of the past few years. It is the result of regulators in Europe, California and China doing their job and industry rising to the occasion. It shows what we can achieve if we set industry ambitious goals to clean up its act.” — William Todts, Guardian

Electric cars won’t help if they rely on heavy polluting sources of electricity

“The challenge will be to migrate to renewable sources, such as wind or solar, so that tailpipe emissions aren’t simply shifted to more smokestacks.” — Paul A. Eisenstein, NBC News

A massive infrastructure plan will be needed to support all those new electric cars

“Getting people into electric vehicles is just the first step. Finding enough places for them to charge, without overwhelming the electricity grid, will require a huge outlay of state money.” — Dustin Gardiner, San Francisco Chronicle

The U.S. is already way behind other countries in the transition to electric cars

“Europe and China have woken up to the fact that [the combustion engine] is dead. Now, it looks like the U.S. is waking up.” — Auto industry analyst Arndt Ellinghorst to Wall Street Journal

Lawmakers will need to create incentives for consumers to buy electric cars

“If EVs can’t compete directly on price in the marketplace, public policy will need to play a larger role in driving EV adoption and cutting transportation emissions.” — James Temple, MIT Technology Review

Governments shouldn’t have a role in the free market

“As California keeps proving with every new business-killing law that it passes, the government is ill-suited to decide how markets are going to shape up.” — Editorial, Washington Examiner

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images