Four ways to gear up on climate change

Rush hour on Los Angeles’ Interstate 405.
Rush hour on Los Angeles’ Interstate 405. New York Times file

This state is a national model for environmental action. But anyone who drives during rush hour knows that Californians are a long way from the finish line on climate change.

Californians drive 330 billion miles per year, the vast majority on gasoline and diesel engines whose exhaust generates about 40 percent of the state’s contribution to global warming. Just getting those greenhouse gas-spewing motorists into cleaner cars, let alone mass transit, would make a huge difference in air quality and set a powerful global example.

But so far, of the 24 million or so cars on the road here, only about 600,000 are gas-electric hybrids and only about 163,000 are zero-emission. That’s more than any other state, but not even close to enough.

Only about 8 percent of new vehicles sold here are hybrids, and only about 4 percent are plug-in electric vehicles or fuel cells. Meanwhile, Gov. Jerry Brown has set a goal for zero-emission vehicles alone of 1.5 million more such cars on the road within the decade.

California has its work cut out for it, given those numbers. So what more can be done?

Several things, as it turns out.

First, the Public Utilities Commission needs to move faster on infrastructure for plug-ins and electric vehicles.

For more than a year, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric have been waiting for PUC permission to start adding charging stations at workplaces, apartment complexes, airports and other places where people tend to park for long stints.

The utilities, along with Pacific Gas and Electric, are prepared to invest big in such systems, and they would make owning an electric vehicle or hybrid exponentially more attractive. The stations also would ramp up a new income stream for utilities, which are losing market share to rooftop solar, fuel cell technology and other sources of small-scale generation.

The PUC has moved slowly, concerned that utilities might take advantage of their monopoly status to overcharge ratepayers for the build-out, or that they would crowd out private competitors based in California such as ChargePoint. On Wednesday, they finally released one proposed decision, but it only impacts one phase of one pilot project. Patience is a virtue, but consumers say the paucity of ZEV charging stations is a big reason they cling to their internal combustion smogbombs.

The PUC should get busy and get those charging stations out there. Californians won’t put 1.5 million electric cars on the road if there’s no place along the way to plug them in.

Second, the state’s clean vehicle incentives need to be improved and given guaranteed, ongoing funding, not the intermittent allocations that underwrite them now.

Though state incentives seem ample – up to $2,500 for buyers of new ZEVs on top of a federal rebate of up to $7,500, and even more starting next year for buyers with low and moderate incomes – for most consumers, they’re about half what they once were.

Plus, their funding has to be reallocated every year, which creates uncertainty in the market. Dealers don’t know if the rebate money will be there, so they’re reluctant to advertise it; buyers don’t know how much they’ll get or who will qualify, so they lose interest.

The program is paid for by the California Air Resources Board’s Air Quality Improvement Fund and the state’s massive cap-and-trade auction proceeds, which were put on hold at the end of the last legislative session.

At the moment, according to CARB, there is only about $56 million available for rebates, enough to create incentives for the purchase of about 28,000 clean cars between now and May, when another cap-and-trade auction will release a little more money.

State lawmakers should consider substantially increasing the rebate pot, even if just for a limited time, while guaranteeing a base level of funding from one year to the next, as they have for, say, transit. The sweeteners have to be bolder and more consistent for Californians to give up their gas guzzlers in a period of cheap gas.

Third, car dealers need to stop hiding ZEVs at the back of their car lots, and give salespeople incentives to sell them.

Too many owners of electric cars and plug-ins have tales of car salesmen who tried, incredibly, to steer them out of what they wanted and into an internal combustion car.

Other than Teslas, which are sold direct to consumers, most ZEVs are sold by dealers whose salespeople often don’t know or care enough about electric cars to pitch them to car buyers. Also, gas engines require servicing that’s a revenue source for dealers.

The smart money is on being part of the solution. This week, tech CEOs stepped into the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal by petitioning CARB not to make VW fix the engines but to accelerate its rollout of zero-emission models. The future is here; it’s bad business to pretend that it’s not.

Fourth, drivers need to branch out.

It’s disheartening that even as climate change has wrought havoc this year across the landscape, 56 percent of U.S. vehicle sales were of SUVs, crossovers and pickups, up from 53 percent for the same period last year. According to Toyota, the RAV4 SUV is on track to surpass the Camry as its top-selling U.S. model.

Yes, trucks are becoming more fuel efficient, and some drivers need them to haul things. But most are gas hogs by comparison with ZEVs and hybrids.

We have miles to go if we’re going to make a dent in the heat pollution that’s wrecking the planet. There’s no way we’re going to get there without an all-in strategy, and that means cleaner traffic.

Besides, Californians, doesn’t a part of you yearn to stick it to OPEC? Or Texas, at least?