Recent EV pledges are big news for the planet. Let’s make the most of them.
After decades of climate research, we know a few things for sure. We know the global temperature is rising. We know rising temperatures are spreading misery across the planet. We know human beings are causing the problem – mostly by burning fossil fuels.
But after decades of climate activism, we also know this: Without a politically viable way to end climate change, there won’t be sufficient political will.
Polls show plenty of Americans believe climate change is a threat to our country. Yet healthcare, jobs, and the economy are usually bigger priorities. Public support for climate action plummets when people are asked to contribute to solutions.
Now, Joe Biden and some of the world’s largest automakers have given us a political way. In January, the President announced plans to replace the federal fleet with electric vehicles made in America. GM CEO Mary Barra said her company will phase out gas-powered vehicles by 2035. Volkswagen has since announced bold plans to drive down the cost of EV battery production.
In just a few weeks, Biden, Barra and others changed the game and turned the politically costly work of cutting greenhouse gas emissions into a no-brainer for jobs and the economy. As Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp put it at the time, “There can be no doubt: The future of transportation, starting now, is electric.”
The impact on the planet could be massive. According to the EPA, light-duty vehicles account for nearly 60 percent of U.S. transportation-related emissions. Switching to zero-emission vehicles could cut pollution by 600 million metric tons a year – the equivalent of removing 130 million cars from our roads.
But there are plenty of ways this success story could still go wrong. To make sure EVs deliver on their full potential for people and the planet, environmental groups must work with the Administration, Congress, unions, and manufacturers to do five things:
1. Develop and back a comprehensive policy plan
After years of federal neglect, America’s EV policies are a patchwork of different state and local programs. If our nation were far ahead of the global competition, it might be fine to let a thousand flowers bloom. But China is already rushing ahead.
America can lead the EV revolution. The Biden Administration has proposed a bold $175 billion investment in electric vehicles, including construction of 500,000 new electric vehicle charging outlets. That’s a place to start. Right now, the United States has less than 30,000 public EV chargers – compared with 136,000 gas stations.
But outside a broader and well-considered policy plan, it could prove piecemeal and premature. In at least some circumstances, battery swapping may prove more efficient – and more popular with consumers – than long waits by a charging station.
2. Save and Create Jobs
Some jobs will be lost as the auto industry shifts to electric. Environmental groups can work with unions to protect existing jobs and create new ones -- including by bringing EV supply chains to the United States.
They can also caution the Administration against overly strict early enforcement of the President’s “Buy American” Executive Order. New Buy American requirements come just as complex new U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade agreement rules are entering into force. Automakers and suppliers need time to adjust.
3. Incentivize Production, Purchases and Infrastructure
Environmental groups can work with the federal government, states and localities to promote EV adoption and to draw supply chains to the United States. That’s critical because electric vehicles generally are – for now – more expensive to buy than internal combustion vehicles and may have a higher total cost of ownership.
The Administration is already working to expand the federal tax credit for the purchase of all-electric cars. Governments can further change the calculus by eliminating sales taxes on EVs, establishing trade-in tax credits and ensuring local building codes make chargers part of new construction.
4. Invent New Batteries
Enhanced R&D incentives and federal funding can drive discovery of cheaper and cleaner alternatives to today’s lithium-ion batteries. Extracting lithium and heavy metals used in the production of those batteries creates its own environmental problems.
EV manufacturers and their suppliers are working to develop new batteries and to bring lithium supply lines to the United States. But without further progress, EVs could end up shifting the location of environmental damage rather than reducing it for everyone.
5. Protect Vulnerable People and Communities
No one should be left behind in the shift to a greener economy. There must be a just transition for the many people who depend on fossil fuels. California’s evolving just transition roadmap and action plan may be models for others.
There is much to do. But environmental groups have prepared for this moment. They have established strong relationships at every level of government. They have pioneered policy plans and crafted successful models. Now is the time to put those investments to work.
(Photo above is of the beautiful Tarform Luna cycle. See more at tarform.com)