Banning gas cars is a good thing, but it will take more to save the planet

When ca The pollution regulator voted last month to approve a rule banning sales of new gas-powered cars in the state by 2035, and its officials have been hailed as climate champions. With good reason, too: The move would reduce emissions by about 400 million metric tons between 2026 and 2040, the state estimates, preventing an estimated 1,300 deaths from heart and lung disease. The ban is the first of its kind in the United States and among the most stringent climate regulations in the world. It underscores the Golden State’s standing as a powerful evidence ground for environmental policy. Moreover, the auto industry already enthusiastic about electrification seems to have taken everything by leaps and bounds. Experts say the goal should be within reach, too; After all, more than 16 percent of new cars sold in California this year were zero-emissions.

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

The country has committed to driving less because it will take time for one reason All California cars to become zero-emissions. Despite new purchases and scrapping of old cars, the average age of cars on American roads continues to increase—today, the average is more than 12 years. Existing gas-powered cars will last a long time after being banned from many new cars. In addition, there are a lot of emissions associated with cars and driving that don’t come out of the exhaust pipe, including primarily the manufacture of the car and the things that cars drive. Building and maintaining just one mile of highway results in about 3,500 tons of carbon emissions, according to one analysis.

Despite its goal, California has not yet been able to significantly reduce driving. In 2019, the last year of strong data, Californians were driving and riding more cars than they did 14 years ago. They were getting around using cars, cycling, and walking to work less. And fewer people were taking the bus or train, a pattern that has worsened since the start of the pandemic. By 2035, the state aims to reduce car mileage by the California average by 19 percent, compared to 2005. But preliminary data suggests that by 2019, that number has moved in the opposite direction. (In public comments, a number of regional agencies have argued that they have reduced driving miles more than the Air Resources Board calculates in its draft report.)

The rest of the United States needs less leadership, too. An analysis from the Rocky Mountain Institute, a sustainability research organisation, estimates that by 2030 the US must reduce car mileage by 20 percent to limit global warming to 1.5°C. Beyond that, the experience of living on Earth is likely to get even worse.

Unfortunately, the inertia of a century of urban planning in the United States 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 not very feasible,” says Susan Handy, professor of environmental science and policy at the University of California, Davis. “What we need to do is rebuild and adjust our societies so that they are just possible to drive less,” she says.

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