Californians can’t shake their love affair with cars – and pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles. That’s hurting the greenest state in the union’s much-publicized crusade against climate change.
While California is making headway in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the rate of progress is slowing. Emissions fell by a scant 0.3 percent in 2015, the last year for which figures are available. It was one of the smallest year-to-year declines recorded since California enacted laws aimed at defeating global warming more than a decade ago, and calls into question the state’s ability to meet long-term goals for curtailing carbon.
The chief culprit: California’s cars and trucks. After falling steadily since 2007, greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles increased by 3 percent in 2015, according to the California Air Resources Board. That meant the equivalent of 4.6 million additional metric tons of carbon spewed into the air, the agency said in a report released in June.
“People are driving more and people are having to drive further distances,” said Colleen Kredell, research director at Next 10, a San Francisco think tank that studies environmental and economic issues. “We have a stronger economy today; we also have lower gas prices, so more cars are on the road.”
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When it comes to climate change, tailpipe emissions matter greatly. Transportation is the single largest source of greenhouse gases in California, generating 37 percent of the total. The millions of vehicles on California’s roads generate far more greenhouse gases than smokestack industries.
Not only are there more cars on the road – up more than 5 percent since 2010 – they’re getting bigger. Californians are mad for Priuses – and for Ford F Series pickups, too. Through the first six months of this year, Californians bought slightly more “light trucks” – pickups, SUVs and vans – than sedans. That hasn’t happened in at least 10 years, according to the California New Car Dealers Association.
Today’s trucks and SUVs are considerably more efficient than the models of a decade ago. But the fact remains, experts say, that larger vehicles emit more greenhouse gases than sedans.
“Your automobile manufacturers and your car dealers are very much in tune with what needs to be done with the environment, but nobody can change the public’s appetite for trucks and SUVs when gas prices are lower,” said John Driebe, who owns a chain of Nissan, Infiniti and Mazda dealerships in Elk Grove and Roseville. “Over the last couple of years, with the shift in gasoline prices downward, we’ve seen more SUV and more truck sales.”
Some experts believe the increase in vehicle emissions could make it tougher for California to slash greenhouse gases by 40 percent between 2020 and 2030 – the mandate enacted by the Legislature.
“Developing cleaner transportation options presents both a great challenge and a great opportunity for the state moving forward,” said Next 10 founder Noel Perry in a just-released report on climate change in California.
Tailpipe emissions are going up at a critical time for California policymakers. The state is locked in a power struggle with the Trump administration over rules that require automakers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in new cars by about one-third between now and 2025. The reductions would translate into major jumps in fuel mileage, to an average of more than 50 miles per gallon compared with about 36 mpg today.
After hearing pleas for leniency from the auto industry, the Environmental Protection Agency under Trump is reconsidering greenhouse gas rules – put into place by the Obama administration, in consultation with California officials – that govern cars manufactured between 2021 and 2025.
California is pushing back, however. Because of its legendary air pollution problems, the state has the right under federal law to enact its own standards. The state Air Resources Board voted earlier this year to stick with the existing rules in defiance of the Trump administration. A dozen other states follow California’s mandates, which is permitted by federal law. The White House could revoke California’s right to impose its own rules but so far hasn’t done so.
Automakers now find themselves caught in the middle. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers had urged Trump to relax the rules, saying the cost of compliance would “depress an industry that can ill afford spiraling regulatory costs.” But with California standing firm, carmakers fear the idea of having to build cars to two sets of standards – one for California and its 12 allies, and one for all the other states. That would be prohibitively expensive.
As a result, carmakers are seeking a compromise. The head of the carmakers’ alliance, Mitch Bainwol, said at a recent conference that manufacturers are comfortable with the existing rules but want them phased in more gradually.
“They have acknowledged the fact that people in general want higher fuel economy and lower emissions,” said Annette Hebert, chief of emissions compliance in the Air Resources Board’s automotive division. “They want to talk about a compromise or a deal.”
Regardless of what happens to tailpipe standards, some California officials believe reducing greenhouse emissions will require changes that go beyond regulations and automotive technology.
Dan Sperling, a member of the air board and director of UC Davis’ Institute for Transportation Studies, said changing behaviors is also a must. For instance, he wants to see more Californians sharing cars instead of commuting to work by themselves.
“I’ve become a big champion of Uber Pool and Lyft Line,” Sperling said, citing carpool programs that have been launched by the popular ride-sharing services.
Another option is electric cars.
Figures from the air board and car dealers association show that Californians already own more than 250,000 electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids. That represents about half of all the clean cars in America. But it’s still a small segment of the market. Electrics and plug-ins accounted for about 46,000 cars sold in California in the first half of 2017, or less than 5 percent of all sales.
While the numbers are growing, it’s unclear if California can reach its goal of 1.5 million electrics and plug-ins on the road by 2025, as outlined in an executive order by Gov. Jerry Brown. Auto industry experts say many motorists are still leery of the technology and its limitations; most of the vehicles must be charged every 100 to 200 miles, about half the range of a gas-powered car.
Range is improving, however, and charging stations are becoming more plentiful. Volkswagen will spend $800 million over the next decade building charging stations and promoting zero-emission vehicles in California, part of its penalty for a diesel pollution scandal.
A Bay Area lawmaker, meanwhile, wants to make it easier for Californians to buy the cars.
The state already provides rebates for purchases or long-term leases of clean cars – $1,500 for plug-ins, $2,500 for electrics and $5,000 for hydrogen fuel cells – but the customer has to apply for the rebate after leaving the showroom. The rebate can take up to three months to arrive in the mail.
Under AB 1184, by Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, customers would receive the rebates on the spot, in the form of a discount. Ting believes the instant gratification would make consumers embrace clean cars more readily.
“We think point-of-sale incentives are much more effective than rebates,” Ting said in an interview this week. “They would really help prime the interest in electric vehicles.”