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At Jerry Brown's climate summit, one deadline will overshadow all the others

At Jerry Brown's climate summit, one deadline will overshadow all the others
The Arcimoto SRK, a tandem two-seat, three-wheeled electric vehicle, was available for test-driving at "Automobility," the 2017 L.A. Auto Show at the L.A. Convention Center. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

The political leaders coming from around the world for Gov. Jerry Brown’s climate action summit this week will grapple with a lot of urgent deadlines to drive down emissions, but one date is especially exasperating.

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It is 2035 — the year advocates aim to kill off production of gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles.

Keeping global warming to levels society can tolerate could hinge on meeting that target. But even clean-tech-nology capital California has no clear path for getting there.

The question of whether drivers should be gently persuaded or forced out of their internal combustion engine cars and trucks over the next 17 years will weigh heavily on the landmark summit, which runs from Wednesday through Friday in San Francisco.

States, cities and companies will try to chart a course to carry the country and the world toward meeting the goals in the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change, which President Trump has disavowed.

(Los Angeles Times)

Transportation is the most vexing problem the summit will confront. The sector sends more greenhouse gases into the air than any other, recently outpacing power plants, which are getting cleaner every year. Internal combustion engine cars need to be off the roads altogether by 2050 to meet the Paris goals. Dealers would need to stop selling new models 15 years earlier.

“Even during the Obama administration, when the country was pushing as hard and fast as it could onclimate policy, it still wasn’t enough” to meet the goals on auto emissions, said Kate Larsen, a director at Rhodium Group, a Bay Area research firm.

Rhodium’s modeling shows that just 8% of U.S. drivers will be in zero-emission cars, pickups or SUVs by 2025, a depressing projection for the climate movement.

The urgency is not lost on Brown. Last year, he directed the state’s chief air regulator, Mary Nichols, to look into stepping up the state’s timetable to phase out gas and diesel vehicles. It gnaws at him that other nations are already catapulting ahead.

Electric vehicles account for 5% of cars sold in California and 1% nationwide. In Norway, they make up 40%. Bans on the sales of new gasoline- and diesel-powered cars are scheduled to take effect there and in several other countries as soon as 2025. China has put automakers on notice that a ban is on the horizon.

But it is a much tougher sell in America, even in California. A state legislative proposal this year to ban the sale of new gas-powered cars and trucks by 2040 went nowhere.

“You want me to issue a press release saying, ‘No more combustion engines’?” Brown said in an interview Monday. “There are 32 million in California. It doesn’t work that way. We have to provide an alternative…. We have to get that in place.”

The shift toward electric vehicles in parts of Europe and Asia is bolstered by government subsidies and tax structures that few American politicians would consider. They include tough gas-guzzler penalties for those who drive high-horsepower, climate-unfriendly pickups and SUVs, and large cash grants and tax breaks for those who buy electric.

The U.S. approach is grounded in requiring automakers to meet steadily more ambitious mileage-per-gallon targets, a process that has gone a long way in cutting carbon emissions.

But fuel economy standards will fall short unless the government sets a near-term target of zero miles per gallon — the point when all new cars run on no gasoline or diesel at all.

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“Even if we were to double our fuel economy targets, we still don’t get there,” said Niklas Hoehne, an author of studies for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and co-founder of NewClimate Institute, a German think tank. “The transition won’t happen in a way that is compatible with the goals agreed to in Paris.”

No one is talking about doubling fuel economy targets in the U.S. The Trump administration is in the process of trying to freeze current targets in place for six years. Yet the clean-tech optimists trying to push California — and by extension, the rest of the country — say there is still hope.

“We saw the same thing with renewable energy,” said Simon Mui, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonpartisan environmental advocacy group. “We went, in the course of a decade, from a plan that didn’t require any of our power to come from renewables to a plan that requires 100% renewable energy by 2045. We are at the same place [with transportation] that we were with wind and solar 10 or 15 years ago.”

California, in particular, has shown a capacity for rapid adaptation. The Toyota Prius first was manufactured in 1997 in response to California’s clean-car policies, and spawned a hybrid revolution. The California Air Resources Board estimates there will be 70 electric vehicle models available by 2022, and much of the innovation is coming from labs in California.

California and like-minded states have been aggressively building charging stations and other infrastructure to coax drivers to go electric. And cities, counties and other bodies have transitioned fleets to zero-emission buses and trucks.

Los Angeles will roll out an ambitious “Zero Emissions 2028 Roadmap” this week, a plan that aims to accelerate electrification and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the region by an additional 25% by the time the 2028 Summer Olympics come to town.

The plan includes building tens of thousands of charging stations and sets ambitious targets for getting drivers and shippers into zero-emission vehicles. Up to 45% of cars in Los Angeles could be electric if the road map holds up.

“This is us saying we need to go further and do everything we can to get people behind the wheel of an electric car or an electric truck,” said Matt Petersen, chief executive of Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, a government-funded nonprofit that’s helping lead electrification efforts.

Driverless vehicles, still in their early stages, could also push electrification forward. The models that ultimately hit the streets are likely to be electric since they are easier for computers to drive and for companies to maintain — and local officials are demanding the change.

“We will be pushing for any autonomous vehicles that hit our streets to be electric,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “It sends a signal to the Ubers and Lyfts, who then turn to the manufacturers with a very strong message.”

Other countries aren’t waiting to go electric. And some analysts say that could spur Washington and the auto industry to act, particularly as Chinese manufacturers develop their own electric car models to meet booming demand.

The Chinese market is already approaching the size of the entire U.S. and European markets combined, and soon will dwarf them. If auto companies fail to reorient their strategies toward electrification, they risk losing huge market share to upstart Chinese competitors, says Joern Buss, a Detroit-based auto industry consultant with the firm Oliver Wyman.

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Brown says Trump needs to wake up to that threat. “He is building the Chinese auto industry and destroying the future American auto industry,” the governor said.

Skeptics say waiting to be nudged ahead by more forward-thinking nations amounts to fiddling as the world burns.

The idea that the internal-combustion engine can be phased out in the next 20 years without government intervention on a massive scale and an unprecedented social awakening among the driving public is foolish, said Peter Tertzakian, executive director of the Arc Energy Research Institute, a Canadian group that analyzes energy investments.

He said most leaders assume the average driver will embrace electric as technology improves, much as parts of the power industry gave up fossil fuels as better systems emerged. But giving up gas-powered cars requires complex shifts in the way people live that don’t come into play when a coal power plant is replaced with a solar or gas plant.

“The Paris agreement was signed three years ago,” Tertzakian said. “The years keep passing, and the substitution [of gas-powered vehicles] is not happening. Look at oil and gas use. It is not decelerating. It is accelerating.”

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