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Driving Towards a Cleaner California

The future of electric vehicles along with climate change is not as far away as we may have thought. In 2020, Gavin Newsom announced, via Executive Order N-79-20, that California car dealerships will no longer be selling gas-powered vehicles by 2035. The California Air and Resource Board (CARB) has been working to implement cleaner practices in the State with incentives such as Advanced Clean Cars II, Advanced Clean Fleets, and Advanced Clean Trucks. This is one of the first policies in the United States to address the concerns of gas-powered vehicles’ carbon emissions. In an act to address the harmful effects of carbon emissions, California plans to act aggressively and swiftly to achieve this goal. As reality sets in, can Californians expect these goals to into fruition? 

How is California able to do this? It began in 1967 when former California Governor and President Ronald Reagan signed the Mulford-Carrell Air Resources Act. The act established the State Air Resources Board, which aimed to tackle California’s air pollution problem with a comprehensive, coordinated approach. Shortly after, the U.S. passed The Clean Air Act which held the Environmental Protection Agency responsible for addressing and regulating air pollutants at a National level.  

The passage of the federal Clean Air Act in 1970 impacted California’s Mulford-Carrell Air Resources Act. The federal legislation set nationwide standards for air quality and pollution control, providing a framework for states to follow. California, already proactive in addressing air pollution, found itself dealing with bureaucratic strains and the potential for deadlock.

While CARB has significant authority to implement its air quality regulations, the EPA maintains oversight responsibilities. Under the Clean Air Act, California has a unique status that allows it to set its own, stricter vehicle emissions standards, provided it receives a waiver from the EPA.

In 2022, the CARB adopted Advanced Clean Cars II (ACC II), which works to address several regulations under one program: low-emission vehicles (LEV), zero-emission vehicles (ZEV), and greenhouse gas regulations. 

The Advanced Clean Cars II regulations aim to significantly reduce emissions from light-duty passenger cars, pickup trucks, and SUVs beginning with the 2026 model year through 2035. These regulations operate on two main fronts. Firstly, they enhance the Zero-emission Vehicle Regulation by mandating the growing number of zero-emission vehicles. This action relies on existing advanced vehicle technologies such as battery-electric, hydrogen fuel cell electric, and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles to meet rigorous air quality and emissions standards. Secondly, the Low-emission Vehicle Regulations have been updated to impose increasingly strict standards for gasoline cars and heavier passenger trucks, aimed at further reducing smog-forming emissions.

Image Source: Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

As of December 2023, The Advanced Clean Car Program is now pending in the EPA waiver process. The mission to address carbon emissions is static — it is unclear when the waiver will be passed and allow CARB to proceed with the implementation of ACC II. 

On January 10, 2024, the EPA held a virtual public hearing regarding the ACC II waiver request. There is no updated information from the EPA website regarding whether the waiver will be or has been accepted. 

While Governor Gavin Newsom publicly stated that California would be taking aggressive and swift measures to address carbon emissions and climate change, bureaucratic processes say otherwise. Despite this, CARB is still working to achieve its big-picture goals.

Nearly three years since Gavin Newsom called his executive order, there has been an incremental implementation of incentives to access clean electric and low-emission vehicles, especially among low and middle-class Californians. CARB announced in 2023 that their Clean Vehicle Rebate Project (CVRP)  would offer nearly $12,000 to scrap older cars for cleaner alternatives and $7,500 in grants for car buyers. The program application is only accessible for a limited time while the budget can accommodate. 

At this rate, some change is better than none. However, the steps to reaching carbon neutrality through the elimination of gas-powered vehicles are still in their infancy. Should we, as Californians, have some hope for a clean future? California has faced the devastating effects of climate change and our local communities feel this impact daily. A smoggy city skyline, the wildfires that incapacitate our lungs and bodies, and unpredictable weather have become the norm. The reality is that carbon emissions accelerate these occurrences. While many oppose and fear this change, we must begin taking critical steps to protect California, but we have a long road ahead.

Feature Image Source: Los Angeles Public Library

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