States have started to put together the policy building-blocks for decarbonization of their economies. The federal government — and states that have lagged behind — can follow their lead in setting carbon emission targets, mandating renewable energy use, upgrading electric grid technology, improving energy efficiency and various other areas laid out in earlier installments of this series.
To support these efforts, we also will have to overhaul our transportation system. Over the course of the past century, we used fossil fuels to revolutionize the way we move from place to place — creating unprecedented mobility, but substantially contributing to climate change. About 30 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation.
But, as with climate targets and a revamped electric grid, we can look to key states for a glimpse of what climate leadership on transit looks like.
Mandating clean vehicles
To achieve the economy-wide greenhouse gas reductions necessary by 2030, we must remove the internal combustion engine from as many vehicles as possible, as fast as possible. California’s zero emission vehicle (ZEV) mandate — which 10 Democratic and Republican states on both coasts have joined, including Colorado just this year — simply requires automobile companies to manufacture and deliver battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell passenger vehicles in large numbers, on clear timeframes.
"Simple" is probably a word seldom used to describe the California ZEV mandate. Because it was the first of its kind, and a significant departure from the tailpipe emission standards traditionally used to regulate passenger vehicles, the car manufacturers went into full Chicken-Little mode (as they always do whenever new environmental or safety regulations are proposed). They lobbied hard to build flexibility mechanisms into the ZEV mandate to make compliance easier, in case their worst fears about the speed of development of ZEV technology — and about consumer preferences — came true.
For example, the manufacturers get extra credit for vehicles with large batteries, which lets them sell fewer total cars. At the beginning of the program, they got to double count sales in California as if they also simultaneously occurred in the nine other states that joined the ZEV mandate (the notorious "travel" provision, which sunsetted in 2018). This meant the manufacturers could focus their efforts on selling cars in California — a very large market with a relatively friendly climate (without the New England winters that can hurt battery life and charging time). Outside of California, they get to pool vehicle sales and use extra sales in one state to count towards another state’s quota (the "pooling" provision, which still exists).
Despite all this, a mandate still works: It forces innovation by otherwise reluctant car manufacturers. Because of the California ZEV mandate, over 30 ZEV models are available for sale in the United States.
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