If a new political effort led by Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley is successful, gas-powered cars could soon start to disappear from our streets.
New legislation introduced to the United States Senate by Merkley on Tuesday would require that beginning in 2035, all new cars sold will produce zero carbon emissions. An identical bill was introduced to the House of Representatives by Rep. Mark Levin of California.
The bill, called the Zero-Emission Vehicles Act of 2020, is similar to legislation introduced by Merkley and Levin last year—but more aggressive. 2019’s bill called for the end of new gas-powered car sales by 2040, an extra five years after the new bill’s deadline. Merkley referenced the urgency of combatting climate change in a press release sent Tuesday.
“The whole world, with a few science-denying holdouts in America, recognizes the imperative of ending carbon pollution,” he said. “By moving aggressively and boldly now, we can help save Americans from the dire health and economic impacts of the climate crisis, and make sure American workers are the ones building the next generation of cars for the world.”
2019’s version of this bill failed to gain traction because of a Republican-powered senate—but the upcoming general election could change the federal government’s makeup. Joe Biden’s climate plan includes tax credits to incentivize purchasing electric cars, signaling he’d support a transition away from combustible engines if elected as president. And polls show there are several US Senate races that are currently up for grabs, meaning Democrats have a chance of flipping the chamber—though that’s far from a sure thing.
The Zero-Emission Vehicles Act of 2020 would phase the market away from gas-powered cars, by first requiring that 50 percent of all new cars sold in the US are zero-emission vehicles by 2025. That requirement would then increase by 5 percent each year until reaching 100 percent in 2035.
Sales of electric cars, the most popular form of zero-emission vehicles, have nearly doubled in the US over last few years. But as of last year, they still accounted for less than 2 percent of all new cars sold.
Even if Merkley’s legislation fails in D.C., the West Coast is already on its way to phasing out gas-powered cars. California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order in September requiring a transition by 2035. In 2019, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed a new law requiring that 90 percent of new cars sold will be zero-emissions in 2035. Several other states have laws calling for at least some level of transition on the books.
Nationwide, the transportation sector accounts for about 30 percent of greenhouse gasses emitted each year, and requiring all passenger vehicles to be zero-emissions would have a likely big impact on overall annual emissions. But as transportation advocates have pointed out, electric vehicles alone won’t solve big-picture issues facing the US, such as urban sprawl and unequal access to transportation options. The manufacture of electric vehicles is itself bad for the environment. And while transition by 2035 is better than nothing, it doesn’t do much to immediately solve the devastating effects of climate change we’re already seeing each year.
But another benefit of transition to electric vehicles, as Merkley highlighted in the press release, is that it could create thousands of new, well-paying jobs—which are sorely needed during a COVID-19 pandemic recession.
"If we don’t make things in America, we won’t have a middle class in America,” Merkley said. “And if we don’t save our planet from climate chaos, our entire economy and our nation’s public health will end up in shambles.”