Banning gas-powered cars is good, but it will take more to save the planet

When a California The pollution regulator voted last month to approve a rule banning new gas-powered car sales in the state by 2035, its officials hailed as climate heroes. With good reason, too: The move will reduce emissions by nearly 400 million metric tons between 2026 and 2040, the state calculates, averting about 1,300 deaths from heart and lung disease. The ban is the first of its kind in the United States and one of the most aggressive climate regulations in the world. This underscores the Golden State’s position as a powerful testing ground for environmental policy. What’s more, an auto industry already excited about electrification seems to have taken the whole thing into its own hands. Experts say the lens should also be within reach; after all, more than 16% of new cars sold in California this year were zero-emissions.

That’s the good news. Here’s the bad news: California still has a lot of work to do, because electrifying cars alone won’t be enough to avert the worst of climate change. In a draft report released this summer, the state’s Air Resources Board turned to another policy needed alongside the ban on gas-powered cars: reducing the number of miles Californians drive each year. “Even with improvements in clean vehicle technology and fuels,” the agency wrote, “there is still a need to reduce driving to meet the state’s climate and air quality commitments. “.

The state has pledged to drive less because, on the one hand, it will take some time to everything California cars will become zero emissions. Despite new purchases and old cars being scrapped, the average age of cars on American roads continues to rise – today the average is over 12 years old. Existing gas-powered cars will stick around long after they’ve been banned from new-car fleets. Plus, there are a lot of emissions associated with cars and driving that don’t come out of a tailpipe, including the manufacturing of the vehicle in the first place and the things the cars run on. The construction and maintenance of a single highway lane generates some 3,500 tonnes of carbon emissions, according to an analysis.

Despite its goal, California has yet to achieve a significant reduction in driving. In 2019, the last year of hard data, Californians were driving and riding more cars, measured by annual vehicle miles traveled per person, than they were 14 years earlier. They carpooled, cycled and walked to work less. And fewer people were taking the bus or train, a trend that has worsened since the start of the pandemic. By 2035, the state aims to reduce vehicle miles traveled by the average Californian by 19 percent, compared to 2005. But preliminary data suggests that by 2019, that number had moved in the opposite direction. (In public comments, a number of regional agencies argued that they had reduced miles traveled by more than the Air Resources Board calculates in its draft report.)

The rest of the United States also needs to drive less. An analysis by the Rocky Mountain Institute, a sustainability research organization, estimates that by 2030, the United States must reduce car miles traveled by 20% to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Beyond that, the experience of living on Earth is likely to get worse.

Unfortunately, the inertia of a century of American urban planning has made it very difficult to live in many places without driving. “What we’re trying to do is get people to drive less, but for a lot of people that’s just not very possible,” says Susan Handy, professor of environmental science and policy at UC Davis. . “What we need to do is rebuild and adjust our communities to become just possible drive less,” she says.

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