Electric dreams: Accelerated by recent actions in California and Massachusetts, the transition from gas-powered cars to electric vehicles is coming more quickly than many thought possible

Jake Taber

You could say that Massachusetts just hit the gas on electric cars — but that metaphor will soon be outmoded. 

On Jan. 5, 2021, Gov. Charlie Baker announced that Massachusetts will aim to phase out the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035, joining California as the second state to pledge to go all-electric. 

Of course, we will need to take other steps to achieve a zero-carbon, pollution-free transportation system, such as investing in transit, walking, and biking. But 100% EVs would take a huge bite out of pollution. 

Let’s stay tethered to reality for a moment. Two states — even when one is as ginormous as California — do not make for an automotive revolution. However:

  • Ten other states (Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington State) have adopted California’s Zero Emission Vehicle standards in the past. And Minnesota is moving quickly to join their ranks. 

  • If all of these states pull the plug (to mix a metaphor) on new gas-powered cars, roughly one-third of the country will live in states committed to all-electric new vehicles in the not-so-distant future. 

  • The last time the auto industry found itself in a similar circumstance, it agreed to the Obama administration’s demand for tough new nationwide auto emission standards. (You can see where this is going …)

  • Oh, and President Biden is committed to promoting electric vehicles, including a call for 500,000 new charging stations

The EV transition might be accelerating, but our arrival at destination zero carbon can’t come soon enough. 

The long road for clean cars

Transportation is the biggest source of carbon pollution nationwide. Driving down this pollution will require better public transportation, better options for people who want to bike or walk, and smarter decisions about development. But setting a destination of zero carbon for cars and trucks is a critical step for any state, city or country hoping to tackle climate change. Plus, a transition away from gas-powered cars means an eventual end to tailpipe emissions, which are responsible for much of the air pollution that triggers asthma attacks and cuts short lives.

That’s why the staff and members of Environment America and state environmental groups, along with those of U.S. PIRG and the state PIRGs, have spent nearly three decades conducting research, advocating policy changes, and organizing political and public support for cars that pollute less or not at all.

So, how is it that California and other states can set their own auto emission standards? How have those standards changed over the years? And why have they changed?

California’s air pollution has been really, really bad for over half a century. In 1943, the smog in Los Angeles was so bad, residents assumed it was a gas attack unleashed by World War II foe Japan. In 1949, you could buy special “smogoggles” to help you see through the smog. In 1955, motorcycle messengers (the gas-powered antecedents of today’s bike messengers) were outfitted with gas masks.

It took long enough, but by 1967 California created its own Air Resources Board (approved by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan). In 1970, Congress allowed California a special waiver to set its own tougher-than-federal clean air standards (or more accurately, Congress recognized that California was already setting its own tailpipe pollution limits). To avoid the proverbial patchwork quilt of state laws, Congress let other states choose: follow the federal standards or adopt California’s.

In the decades that followed, California kept innovating and leading:

  • In 1990, the state approved the nation’s first Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) standards, requiring automakers to produce a growing number of vehicles that produce … well, zero emissions. Meanwhile, the state’s Low Emission Vehicle (LEV) standards ensured that newer gas-powered cars would pollute less than older models.

  • In 2004, California was first to limit planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions from cars.

  • On Sept. 23, 2020, in the wake of devastating wildfires exacerbated by climate change, Gov. Newsom announced the state would phase-out the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035.

Each of these moves posed a challenge to the auto industry, which would prefer just one set of nationwide standards — but couldn’t afford to ignore the huge California market.

Our network upped the ante. Not only were CALPIRG and, later, Environment California chief proponents of cleaner car standards from 1990 on, but the state PIRGs and, later, the other state environmental groups made sure that what happened in California didn’t stay in California.

  • In 1990, MASSPIRG helped make Massachusetts the first state to follow California’s lead in adopting ZEV standards — and committed the state to keep following California’s lead every time the Golden State improved its standards.

  • In 2004, NJPIRG’s advocacy led New Jersey to become the first state to adopt California’s new limits on carbon emissions from cars.

  • In both cases, PIRGs in other states and, later, our state environmental groups, took action to persuade their elected officials to adopt the latest California Clean Car standards. 

  • By 2009, 14 states representing over a quarter of the nation’s population had adopted tougher standards — granting President Obama and then-Vice President Biden enormous leverage in negotiating with the auto companies over tough new federal standards. 

Of course, the Trump administration moved quickly to roll back the Obama Clean Car standards — but never succeeded completely, thanks in part to the advocacy, action and litigation of Environment America.


Credit: TJO Photography

Meanwhile, with backing from our state environmental groups, Colorado has adopted California’s LEV and ZEV standards, Minnesota is moving to do so, and we’re urging more states to phase out the sale of new gas-powered cars.

The Trump rollback attempts might have been a senseless diversion in the race to avert catastrophic climate change. But they did little to slow the engineers and entrepreneurs who are finding ways to make batteries that cost less, electric cars that go farther on a charge, and charging stations that will someday be as common and simple-to-use as gas stations are today.

Some experts predict that in a few years, electric cars will be cheaper than gas-powered cars. Some say that, over the lifetime of a vehicle, they already are. How quickly and completely electric vehicles become the norm, will require, as a Forbes contributor wrote, “an alignment among consumers, business and governments.”

The recent actions by California and Massachusetts — three decades in the making — are bringing that alignment closer to reality. It might happen sooner than you think.

Top photo credit: Robbie Shade via Wikimedia Commons


Jake Taber