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WASHINGTON — California on Wednesday made public an aggressive plan to mandate a steady increase in the sale of electric and zero-emissions vehicles, the first step in enacting a first-in-the-nation goal of banning new gasoline-powered cars by 2035.
Under the proposed rule, issued by the California Air Resources Board, the state will require 35 percent of new passenger vehicles sold in the state by 2026 to be powered by batteries or hydrogen. Less than a decade later, the state expects 100 percent of all new car sales to be free of the fossil fuel emissions chiefly responsible for warming the planet.
It would mark a big leap. Currently, 12.4 percent of new vehicles sold in California are zero-emissions, according to the board.
If the board finalizes the plan in August, it could set the bar for the nation’s automobile industry. California is the largest auto market in the United States and the 10th largest in the world. In addition, 15 other states — including New York, Massachusetts and North Carolina — have previously followed California’s moves regarding tailpipe emissions and may adopt similar proposals.
A Critical Year for Electric Vehicles
The popularity of battery-powered cars is soaring worldwide, even as the overall auto market stagnates.
“This is tremendously important,” said Daniel Sperling, a member of California’s air board and the director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. He said the proposed rule, which he said he expects to pass, sends a signal to the global auto market.
“Other countries and other states, they watch what California does,” he said. “And so this will reverberate around the world.”
The proposal comes as President Biden’s climate agenda is faltering. Mr. Biden signed an executive order last year calling for the government to try to ensure that half of all vehicles sold in the United States be electric by 2030. Legislation that would help enable that transition by allocating billions of dollars in electric vehicle tax incentives, however, has been stalled in the Senate. Meanwhile, under pressure to alleviate high gas prices, the president has been urging oil companies to drill for more oil.
Automakers did not immediately respond to requests for comment about California’s proposed rule. In a joint statement last year, Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, the auto company formed this year after the merger of Fiat Chrysler and Peugeot, announced their “shared aspiration” to achieve sales of 40 to 50 percent electric vehicles nationally by 2030.
But they need government support and a “full suite of electrification policies” to translate aspirations into action, they wrote.
Transportation is California’s largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants.
California’s proposed rule puts into motion an executive order that Gov. Gavin Newsom issued in 2020. Under the plan, 35 percent of new cars and light trucks sold must be zero-emissions starting in 2026. That will increase to 68 percent in 2030, and to 100 percent in 2035. The plan allows for 20 percent of new sales to be plug-in hybrids.
According to California air pollution regulators, the rule will eliminate 384 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions between 2026 and 2040 — more than the state emitted from all sources in 2019.
“These emission reductions will help stabilize the climate and reduce the risk of severe drought and wildfire and its consequent fine particulate matter pollution,” the state plan says.
Environmental groups were divided over the plan. Don Anair, deputy director of the clean transportation program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the measure had improved since an earlier draft. He called it the “most important climate decision” that California’s air resource board will make this year.
But Scott Hochberg, a transportation attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, accused California of taking “a slow road” and, in a statement, called for the state to end the sale of gas-powered vehicle sales five years earlier, by 2030.
Mr. Sperling noted that several challenges remained, including building charging stations for vehicles and persuading consumers to buy electric vehicles. He said the final 20 to 30 percent would be the hardest part of the transition and would very likely require new policies and incentives.
“We can’t get people to get vaccinated,” he said. “Why do we think we can get them to buy an electric car? What that means is, we’re going to have to get creative about making these vehicles attractive and compelling to consumers even beyond and above its inherent attributes.”