California's New Climate Plan Uses Incentives To Cut Vehicle Emissions

Dec 19, 2017
Originally published on December 19, 2017 5:39 pm

California has the toughest air quality regulations of any state in the country. But they're not tough enough to satisfy a new state law that requires California to double the rate at which it cuts greenhouse gases.

So this month, the California Air Resources Board approved a plan it says is aimed at "decarbonizing" the state's economy.

The plan seeks, by 2030, to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the state by 40 percent from 1990 levels. The board projects that the plan will save $11 billion in avoided environmental damage.

The key to the plan is to get more clean cars and trucks on the road.

The state extended or approved programs that offer incentives to buy zero-emission vehicles. The plan encourages the deployment of zero-emission trucks and spending more to shift to cleaner systems for the large amount of freight that enters the state (three of the country's top 10 ports by volume are in California: the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland).

The plan, which aims to cut or eliminate diesel trucks, provides $208 million in incentives for truck and bus fleets to go green by purchasing electric vehicles. Another $190 million will go toward making freight operations less polluting. You can imagine electric forklifts.

More than 20 manufacturers offer 60 eligible models of hybrid, low-emission and zero-emission trucks and buses, according to The incentives, at nearly $400 million, have already sparked competition, it reported:

"Such incentives are expected to encourage the purchase of electric trucks and powertrains like those that Tesla Inc., Cummins Inc., BYD Inc. and Mitsubishi Fuso are planning or are already selling. Electric heavy-duty trucks typically sell for 20 percent to 30 percent more than comparable diesel vehicles. The incentives will help offset the difference. The funding also will underwrite sales of clean natural gas trucks and other green technologies."

Though much of the plan is directed at transportation, California also is taking steps that would curb emissions in other parts of the economy. Under a renewed cap-and-trade program, it will be more expensive to emit and dispose of super pollutants such as refrigerants or methane.

The board's plan provides guidelines for the state's electric utilities to use renewable sources for half their energy by 2030. It provides money for everything from investing in and developing clean fuel technology.

The plan also calls for doubling the number of electric charging stations in California. This initiative will be aided by $800 million in fines from Volkswagen, to mitigate damage from the automaker's diesel emissions scandal.

This all comes while the Environmental Protection Agency, under Administrator Scott Pruitt, appears set to roll back federal fuel economy rules. California is the one state that can set its own emissions rules under the Clean Air Act of 1970, subject to a waiver. Other states can follow California's lead or the federal government's lead but they aren't allowed to strike out on their own.

I think there's no question that our vehicle emissions standards have been the most influential and will continue to be. - Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board

California has asked for and received a waiver to make tougher rules than the federal government. Pruitt has said EPA is not reviewing California's special status, though environmental groups are poised to fight.

Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board, says the state will continue to set tough rules. "I think there's no question that our vehicle emissions standards have been the most influential and will continue to be," she tells NPR.

Nichols says it would be hard for the auto industry to ignore the state since China and other countries are following California's lead when it comes to climate change.

Pointing to changing consumer awareness and a determination by other countries to curb carbon emissions, she says "the demand is growing around the world for very efficient, very clean, essentially no-pollution vehicles. That's a path we're on and will continue to stay on."

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California has the toughest air quality regulations of any state in the country, but they're not tough enough to satisfy the new state law that requires California to double the rate at which it cuts greenhouse gases. So this month, the California board that sets climate policy released a new plan. It focuses on transportation. And NPR's Sonari Glinton joins us now to discuss it. Hi, Sonari.


SUAREZ: So this plan was put out by the California Air Resources Board. What exactly is in the plan?

GLINTON: Well, it deals with all sorts of things - power plants, solar installation, even cement mixing. But it's really about transportation. The idea is that it'll crack down harder on polluters and super polluters. And there are also incentives to industry to use electric vehicles. So think about electric buses, semi trucks and maybe even forklifts. And the goal is to get about 4.2 million electric vehicles on the road by 2030, which is pretty bold 'cause we have under a million now.

SUAREZ: Well, that caught my eye because I wondered how California achieves that goal of more electric vehicles when SUVs are once again all the rage.

GLINTON: Well, you know, Ray, it helps when you give people money (laughter) to incentivize them. California already has a lot more electric vehicles than other states, and it's gotten there in part by incentives. Now the state will offer $2,500 dollars for electric cars and up to $5,000 for other vehicles. But the real investment is in the infrastructure. This plan calls for doubling the number of electric chargers because studies show that people need to see these charging stations to make them feel comfortable about buying an electric car.

SUAREZ: That sounds like it's going to cost a lot of money. Where's that going to come from to pay for these incentives?

GLINTON: Well, there's, you know, gas taxes, fines, pollution credits. But here's something interesting. Volkswagen is one of the biggest contributors to the fund to build this new charging infrastructure. They're contributing $800 million in fines from its diesel emissions cheating scandal. But what the state is doing here is really important because California doesn't just set policy for California. Other states follow California's lead. And other countries are beginning to follow California, such as China. So car makers pay a lot of attention to what's happening here because 10 percent of the cars in the country are sold here.

SUAREZ: Well, back here in Washington the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, wants to roll back fuel economy standards from the Obama era. Would that supersede the California rules?

GLINTON: Well, not really. The federal government sets fuel economy rules. So how fuel efficient your car is, that's the federal government's purview. But air quality is essentially the state of California. And that's because California has a waiver under the Clean Air Act of 1970 that allows it to set stricter policies than the EPA. Then other states can adopt those fuel standards. And then the car companies build their cars essentially to comply with California's tougher rules. But the Air Resources Board and Trump's EPA have been in a philosophical conflict. It seems unlikely that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt will fight a waiver. But if he does, environmentalist groups and the states say they are ready for a fight.

SUAREZ: That's NPR's Sonari Glinton. He joins us from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Thanks, Sonari.

GLINTON: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNARKY PUPPY'S "LINGUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.