Editorial

If California insists on keeping its car culture alive, it needs to do so without fossil fuels

Is it possible to imagine a world without carbon-spewing gasoline-powered cars and trucks? A growing number of countries around the world are doing just that, phasing out the sale of such vehicles over the next few decades. Meanwhile, some automakers have announced plans to shift their lineups exclusively to hybrid or electric vehicles. California should join the effort and move toward banning sales of new carbon-emitting vehicles as soon as is practical. And maybe even a little sooner.

It has become clear that the free market is not working fast enough to wean us from our dependence on fossil fuels to power our cars and trucks, which account for more than 10% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Even as temperatures rise year after year, and as the nation gets victimized by more and larger hurricanes, droughts and wildfires, consumers buy ever more gas-So guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks and put in more miles on the road. So we need to throttle back the production lines of the worst polluters and create demand for the kinds of vehicles that just might help us stave off the worst effects catastrophic climate change.

California’s possible involvement in this effort cropped up last month in comments by Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary D. Nichols, who mentioned that Gov. Jerry Brown had asked her why California — where 2 million news cars are sold each year — is not moving toward banning sales of new carbon-emitting vehicles. Norway hopes to end sales of gas-powered vehicles by 2025; smog-choked India by 2030; and France and Great Britain by 2040. China, the world’s largest auto market, says it, too, will ban internal combustion engines, though it has yet to say when. Seeing the future, three automakers — Volvo, Aston Martin and Jaguar Land Rover — plan to sell nothing but hybrid or fully electric vehicles as early as 2019; General Motors, the world’s fourth-largest automaker by production, hasn’t set a timeline but announced that it, too, will move aggressively toward an all-electric fleet.

The national movements to end sales of gas-powered engines are in response to the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, a worldwide pledge that our climate-change-denying president has reneged on as a “bad deal.” But states can act, and California should — its market is the largest in the country, accounting for more than 11% of new vehicle sales in 2016.

It might not make sense to ban internal combustion engines, though; better, perhaps, to ban sales of new vehicles that emit the greenhouse gases causing global warming, giving the automakers the freedom to design the best engines for the task. The ultimate goal is to eliminate carbon and other dangerous emissions from burning fossil fuels, not prescribe the exact technological fix. But setting a deadline sends a significant signal to the market on where it must go.

Is 2030 the right deadline? Or 2040? Or sooner? We’ll leave that to the experts, though the goal must be to get us there as quickly as is reasonable. It would be pointless to set a deadline that can’t be met, but it’s also dangerous to let these emissions continue indefinitely at the levels they have been. There also needs to be sufficient lead time to put in place the necessary infrastructure to support electric and other alternative-fuel vehicles, and the production lines to build them.

At the same time, the nation needs to continue its switch from fossil fuels to renewable sources in the generation of electricity. It doesn’t make sense to convert to electric vehicles if we’re burning fossil fuels to charge them. Public investments will likely be required, which is fine. Preserving public health and securing the climate future of the planet justify public expenditures, including investments in innovation — wireless charging, solar roads that can energize cars, or ideas yet to be conceived for creating power.

It will not be an easy, and likely not a cheap, transition. But the dangers and costs of sitting here in idle are too high to ignore. We’re already seeing the costs of larger and stronger hurricanes. Rising seas will destroy low-lying developed areas — including naval bases and ports — along the nation’s coastlines. The Trump administration can’t be counted on to do anything, but California can join the rest of the world’s progressive leaders in tackling this problem. The risks, if the world fails to take bold steps, veer into the unimaginable.

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