Banning dealers from selling anything but zero-emission cars from 2035, as California Gov. Gavin Newsom decreed this week, sounds pretty radical on first hearing.

Electric vehicles are still a relatively niche pursuit. Charging them up isn’t always straightforward – especially if you live in an apartment – and battery-powered cars tend to cost more than gasoline-powered equivalents (although that won’t be the case for much longer). Predictably, the Trump administration attacked Newsom’s executive order, and the fossil fuel industry is also unhappy.

However, in view of the seriousness of the climate emergency – something Californians need only look out the window to observe – Newsom isn’t being very radical at all.

The truly eye-catching thing about California’s announcement is that the state will allow the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles, whose emissions contribute to wildfires and heat, for another 15 years. Oil-rich Norway, by contrast, wants to ban cars powered by fossil fuels by as soon as 2025. Britain might bring forward its phase-out date from 2035 to 2030.

Speed is of the essence because climate change is already doing enormous damage. And the key question isn’t when we stop selling combustion-engine vehicles, but when the last one is removed from the roads. Think about it: A gasoline vehicle purchased in 2034, a year before California’s ban comes into force, might continue spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for more than a decade after that. Californians will still be able to buy used gas-guzzlers after 2035.

To see why this matters, consider some of the findings of BloombergNEF’s latest Electric Vehicle Outlook. In 2020, about 3 percent of global car sales will be electric models. By 2025, that will hit 10 percent, rising to 28 percent in 2030 and 58 percent in 2040. Despite this incredible growth, these vehicles will amount to only 8 percent of the 1.4 billion cars on the planet’s roads in 2030 and slightly less than a third in 2040.

BNEF forecasts that – after dipping this year because of COVID-related mobility restrictions – emissions from road transportation will keep rising until 2033. While they’ll decline after that, these emissions will still be higher in 2040 than they were in 2019.

Without electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles, the rise in emissions would be greater still. But the existing global car fleet won’t become carbon free magically just because you can’t buy a new combustion-engine vehicle.

Most local governments and countries that have proposed bans so far are pretty vague about how they’ll be enforced or how the last fossil-fuel vehicles will be ordered off the roads. One exception is Singapore, whose 2040 ban will apply to all cars, not just new ones.

Setting a 2035 cut-off only for new sales, as California has done, avoids the awkward discussion about what we do about all those combustion-engine vehicles consumers have already purchased. While you can understand why politicians wouldn’t want to provoke American consumers any more than they need to, this is unfortunate. California is giving the car industry and infrastructure planners time to adapt, but they’ve had plenty already.

Ford praised California’s move. General Motors’ investments are geared toward an “all-electric” future anyway. Tesla Inc.’s $350 billion market value tells you the capital markets think this is the right approach.

Electric vehicles aren’t perfect, of course. Over their lifespan they’re much more carbon efficient than fossil fuel-powered cars, but making the vehicle and the battery still produces planet-warming pollution.(The car industry is trying toaddressthis problem: VW claims its ID3 electric vehicle is carbon neutral thanks tousing green energy to make the battery and other measures.)

Buying a battery-powered SUV that weighs more than 2.5 tons to ferry the kids to school might not do much to save the planet.

However, unlike heavy industry, where the path to zero emissions is technically and financially daunting, we have the tools to make cars much cleaner. From the climate’s perspective, an outright ban on gasoline vehicles can’t come soon enough.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.