A ban on gas-powered cars? 2020 Democrats embrace what once was a California fantasy

Democrats running for president had a message for Americans on Wednesday night: you are going to have to wean yourselves off your gas-powered cars.

“It’s not something you have to do. It’s awesome,” entrepreneur Andrew Yang joked.

That didn’t satisfy CNN host Wolf Blitzer, who pressed Yang during Wednesday’s live presidential town hall on climate change. “What’s the answer? Are we all going to have to drive electric cars?” Blitzer asked.

“We are all going to love driving our electric cars,” replied Yang, while conceding “there will still be some legacy gas guzzlers on the road for quite some time, because this is not a country where you’re going to, like, take someone’s clunker away from them.”

Over and over, Yang’s fellow candidates made the same point when it was their turn to answer questions on their plans to combat climate change. While the 2020 Democrats vary in the precise method and timeline for doing so, they agree that transportation in America must change dramatically in a matter of a few decades or less.

“By my plan, by 2045 we will have basically zero emission vehicles only,” California Sen. Kamala Harris said during the town hall. “100 percent by 2045.”

In fact, Harris’ climate plan calls for 100 percent of new car sales to be zero-emission vehicles 10 years earlier than that — in 2035. Her proposal also promises to implement an updated “cash for clunkers” program, with “incentives for cars to be replaced with zero-emission vehicles manufactured in America, and extra, targeted assistance for low and middle-income families.”

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders made a similar pitch, saying that the government can “make it worth people’s while” to buy electric cars “by heavily subsidizing the industry. We can create a whole lot of jobs by moving away from internal combustion engine cars to electric cars.”

For Republicans, these types of proposals are just more evidence of “Democrats’ radical socialist climate agenda,” as a press release from the Republican National Committee described it Tuesday. “They will not only cost American taxpayers trillions of dollars and destroy their jobs, the promises Democrat candidates are making ‘won’t match reality,’” the release continued.

How to get buyers in ZEVs

But some leading scientists argue the transition won’t be as disruptive as it sounds.

Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis, chided the presidential candidates who spoke Wednesday for failing to delve into “the real policies or strategies for how to achieve carbon neutrality.”

But he told McClatchy that “the transition to electric vehicles does not have to be very expensive and in fact can cost very little to society and to consumers.”

One of the approaches, Sperling said, would be to create a “fee-bate” model, offering a rebate for buying an electric car and charging a fee for buying one that’s gas-powered. “That would be all the incentive you need,” said Sperling, a member of the California Air Resources Board since 2007. “And it would cost taxpayers zero.”

Sperling also noted that the transition to electric cars would be a gradual one, given that just a fraction of Americans purchase brand new cars each year.

That means “the impact on the electricity grid would be rather modest,” he said. “Even in the most aggressive transition, the market share of electricity used for vehicles will be relatively small.”

Stanford University Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Mark Jacobson agreed. “There is a trade off” when moving away from fossil fuels to electricity in terms of building the necessary electrical capacity and charging access, but Jacobson noted that by eliminating the need for gas stations, storage facilities, pipelines and oil and gas drilling rigs, “it’s less infrastructure overall.”

Along with actor Mark Ruffalo and entrepreneur Marco Krapels, Jacobson founded the Solutions Project, which advocates for a shift to 100 percent renewable energy around the world.

“It’s necessary if we want to go to clean renewable energy, we need to electrify the cars,” said Jacobson, who has created models for states and countries to achieve that goal.

‘We all love our cars and trucks’

Former California Gov. Jerry Brown last year set a target aiming to put 5 million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2030, and lawmakers are debating incentives to persuade Californians to buy more zero-emission cars.

California lawmakers have aired proposals in the past to ban gas-powered cars. Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, proposed one in 2017. His bill didn’t pass.

“Our climate crisis has worsened since I first introduced my bill less than two years ago to ban the sale of new, gas-powered vehicles in California by 2040. To make a lasting impact on the planet, we really need to get the whole country to start driving clean cars. It’s a relief to see this pressing issue discussed by the Democratic Party’s Presidential candidates,” Ting said.

Some countries have already set goals even more aggressive than the ones the Democratic presidential contenders are proposing. Norway, for example, plans to ban the manufacture of gas-powered cars by 2025. India is targeting 2030, while the United Kingdom and France have set a target of 2040.

Not all countries, however, have developed the same affection for large, noisy vehicles that the United States has. Muscle cars and revved engines have become as much a part of Americana as the cheeseburger or apple pie.

The CNN anchors who interviewed 2020 Democrats on Wednesday were somewhat incredulous that politicians would be able to convince Americans to give that up.

“Everybody, obviously — we all love our cars and trucks,” Anderson Cooper told Sanders. “How do you manage to get people to relinquish, you know, the car they love for a car, an electric car that may be slower or less powerful initially, and more expensive?”

Sanders replied that saving the planet would require sacrifice. “What a president of the United States has got to do is make it clear to the people of our country and the world what the dangers are if we do not act,” he said. “What is the alternative?”

Harris took a slightly different tack, arguing that for the average American, the changes would not be that dramatic.

“I’ve seen how in California we put in place some of the — some would say toughest, I would say some of the smartest — laws and required changes in behavior and we saw outcomes,” the former California attorney general said. “And I don’t think ... anybody that you talk to who has lived in California over all those years would say there was any drastic change to their lifestyle.”

“Yes, they may say, ‘well, you know I’m now driving a car that I can’t really hear sometimes.’” She continued. “That Prius, right?”

Bryan Anderson of The Sacramento Bee contributed to this story.

Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and writes the Impact2020 newsletter. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.