California’s clean-air problem is a lot bigger than just Trump

No state is tougher on dirty air than California. How tough? So tough that, if trends hold, it may fall short of its own goals.

As President Donald Trump moves to roll back decades worth of regulation, the Golden State has positioned itself as America’s bulwark of environmental protection. The reality behind that is complex, and not only because the Trump administration has signaled it wants to put the brakes on California’s climate-change fight. A chorus of skeptics is warning a new state objective — to slash greenhouse-gas emissions by 40 percent from 1990 — could simply be out of reach, no matter what Washington does.

Time is short: A law Governor Jerry Brown signed in September allows just 13 years to get there.

“Is it physically possible for California to meet its goal? Yes,” said James Sweeney, director of Stanford University’s Precourt Energy Efficiency Center. “Is it economically likely? No.”

Even if power plants, ports, farms and factories continue to reduce toxic output, there’s little chance of hitting the target without an explosion in green cars and trucks. Fewer than 4 percent in California are zero-emission or plug-in hybrids now, and only because state rules demand it. To get to the 2030 mark, the share may well have to grow tenfold, with an emphasis on electric models like those from Tesla Inc. And no automaker has made selling so-called EVs a reliably profitable business.

“There is not a natural level of EV demand that is anywhere close to what California is seeking,” said Eric Noble, president of the CarLab, a product-development consulting firm, who has called state policies “a train wreck.”

California regulators and politicians hardly see it that way, pointing to technological advances that are cutting alternative-car production costs and a flood of new no-emission models coming down the pike. Anyway, they don’t pretend what they’re trying to do could be accomplished naturally, without government intervention.

That was the clear message last week, when the powerful California Air Resources Board voted unanimously to maintain strict tailpipe-emissions limitations and set the stage to begin drafting rules to significantly raise the green-vehicle mix bar for the industry.

“We’ve made incredible strides in improving the air quality, in improving mileage efficiency, not just for California but for Americans,” said state Senate President Kevin de Leon, a Democrat. This hasn’t happened because of private-sector decisions; “it’s because of policy.”

Read More: The bumpy road to making cars cleaner — a QuickTake explainer

For almost two decades, automakers have had to market some nonpolluting cars and trucks to avoid paying big fines to the state. As it is, companies have until 2025 to make 15 percent of sales either plug-in hybrids like Toyota Motor Corp.’s Prius Prime or cars powered by batteries or fuel cells. The new regulations CARB is writing may boost that — to 40 percent by 2030.

With incentives and restrictions, the state is confident it can make the mark, said CARB Chairman Mary Nichols. “We have the technical and legal ability.”

The last part is true for now. Trump — who has called California “out of control” — may go after the state’s special authority under the 1970 Clean Air Act to make its own pollution and greenhouse-gas rules. The wavier allows other states to adopt the California doctrine; nine have, and all told they make up close to 30 percent of the U.S. car market.

A White House official said a decision on the waiver will come after a review the president has ordered of the stringent national fuel-economy and emissions standards that Barack Obama set and the industry asked a receptive Trump to loosen.

De Leon said the expectation is that Washington will move to revoke the state’s privilege. “Then we’ll see each other in court.”

California — which accounts for one in every eight U.S. vehicle sales — has long led the clean-air charge. Facing the nation’s worst smog problem, it began enacting anti-pollution laws in 1959. The first comprehensive measure to combat climate change came in 2006, under Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Enterprises across the state, from oil wells to dairy farms, faced new restrictions. And carbon emissions fell. They totaled 445 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent in 2010, beating the Schwarzenegger law’s target for that year of 465.9 million, the level in 2000. In 2014, the last year for which CARB has released data, the number was 441.5 million, showing progress toward the law’s 2020 goal of getting to 431.5 million, the 1990 level.

The statute signed by Brown, a Democrat, moved the goalposts way out: Emissions will have to plummet to 260 million. C02 warriors insist this can happen by the end of 2030. “What we are going to do in California in the next few years will be transformational,” de Leon said.

That’s the mantra — no matter the current lackluster sales of most green vehicles. When General Motors Co. began selling its Bolt EV in December, it expected to lose $9,000 on each one, people familiar with the situation said. To unload its Leaf electric model, Nissan Motor Co. has had to give discounts worth just over half the $36,000 sticker price, according to TrueCar Inc. analyst Eric Lyman. Nissan declined to comment, except to say government rebates have helped make the Leaf the top-selling EV worldwide.

The industry is making some strides that could put EVs on equal footing with gas guzzlers in manufacturing. Battery-cell costs, for instance, have fallen to the point that they’re no longer an impediment to mass adoption, according to Sam Jaffe of Cairn Energy Research Advisors.

And Jaffe is bullish about California — short-term. He said zero-emission vehicle penetration could hit 22.1 percent by 2025. Getting to 40 percent in the state in the five years after that will be a slog. It’ll be even more difficult in the nine states that follow California’s lead; their residents are buying ZEVs at a fifth of the Golden State’s rate, according to IHS Markit.

The good news for California’s chances to hit its target is that some companies are ramping up. Tesla has pledged to quintuple production to 5,000 electric cars a week by the end of the year. Volkswagen AG predicts EVs will make up a quarter of sales by 2025. Toyota plans to rid its lineup of almost all combustible-engine products by 2050. Chinese companies are hustling; that country, grappling with crippling air pollution, is boosting EV requirements and incentives in a new-vehicle market that’s already 55 percent bigger than America’s.

Outside the U.S., governments that see carbon pollution as a threat are intensifying pressure on automakers. They recognize what the future holds. “Everybody wants to see vehicle electrification succeed,” said Robert Bienenfeld, assistant vice president for environmental and energy strategy at Honda Motor Co., “because it’s the global long-term trend.’’

The trick for California is to compel it into a very short-term one.

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