California’s Zero Emissions Mandate and The Future of American Roads

Cutting through the rumors swirling about California’s new controversial emissions mandate – find out where it comes from and what it means for people in California and beyond.


One month ago, the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the agency responsible for regulating pollution in the state, unanimously voted to pass a resolution prohibiting the sale of new, gas-powered passenger vehicles in the state by the year 2035.   Citing the pressing need to address the threats of climate change, and the authority granted them from the Clean Air Act, the board’s fourteen voting members spoke as one to stamp a firm timeline on their state’s transition to an emission free transportation sector.  That sector is responsible for more than half of the state’s total carbon footprint each year and eighty percent of toxic smog formation- particularly over communities like the LA basin which are currently home to some of the dirtiest air in the US.

The effects of this bold resolution will end up reaching far beyond state borders however, as California now becomes the first US state to join a clique of European nations with similar electric vehicle mandates set to take effect in the next decade.  With as many as seventeen other states now considering following in California’s footsteps, the effects of this decision won’t take long to be felt around the country and the world.  But with an equally large group of states already challenging the legal authority of CARB to set such mandates, California’s plans may end up shuttered before they ever get off the ground.  One way or the other, the effects of this groundbreaking decision will be felt by everyone and so questions and rumors about this controversial decision are naturally swirling.  That is why we are going to set the record straight by conducting a deep dive into the details and possible ramifications of this landmark decision.


What is the Advanced Clean Cars II proposal?

The Advanced Clean Cars II (ACC II) regulatory proposal, or Resolution 22-12, is without a doubt the most ambitious proposal to date for limiting the effects of personal vehicles on the world’s total carbon footprint.  It is not, however, completely unprecedented, nor particularly comprehensive.  First, as we’ve previously stated, there are already plenty of precedents for such mandates outside of the US.  California is now the first US state to join a coalition of western countries including Canada, Britain, France, Spain, and at least seven other European nations that already have similar electric vehicle mandates on their books.

Though California will be the first US state to authorize and implement such a mandate, the decision is not entirely without precedent in the United States either.  This controversial vote follows in the footsteps of an equally controversial executive order, signed by California Governor, Gavin Newsome in September of 2020.  That executive order laid out mandates and timelines nearly identical to those in Resolution 22-12 but as an executive order. The latest resolution is far less vulnerable to opposing political action, protecting it against  the whims of future governors.


So what exactly are those mandates and timelines?


The overall scope of both Newsom’s 2020 executive order, and Resolution 22-12 are really quite limited. Neither Newsom’s 2020 order, nor this year’s CARB resolution will be banning gasoline powered vehicles from operating in the state at any point. Instead, both simply call for emission free vehicles to gradually become larger proportions of all the new vehicles sold each year, imposing fines upon automakers for the difference, up to the year 2035. By that year, the plans call for manufacturers to make the final step from electric vehicles being the vast majority of new vehicles they sell in California, to all of the vehicles they sell in California from 2035 on.

Furthermore, the guidelines set out in the proposal include measures to build up California’s infrastructure to support the demands of more electric vehicles, and a lengthy transition period, during which time Hybrid vehicles, capable of switching between gasoline and electric power at will, can make up a percentage of the required emission free vehicle sales.

This plan is bold, indeed it is arguably the boldest regulation of the automotive industry ever set to ink, but it is worth noting that at no point does this regulation call for the state’s residents to give up gas powered vehicles they already own, nor does it prevent pre-owned gas powered vehicles from being sold by anyone.   From the large lots of used car dealerships to simple handshake deals between neighbors, pre-owned gas powered cars will still be on California’s market when 2035 rolls around.  This resolution’s mandate only applies to brand new cars and trucks being sold by the big automakers and their franchisees in the state.

Given the relatively limited scope of this decision, one may be inclined to wonder what all the hub-bub is about, how much can this limited regulation really do anyway?  The answer is that this mandate’s real power is not in the hard print of the proposal itself, though there is real power there too, but the real, world rocking weight behind this decision lies in its effects on two large groups that lie outside California’s borders.

The first of these groups are the seventeen odd other states that look to California as a lighthouse for state based liberal policies.  States like New York, Colorado, and Vermont, plus about fourteen others, have already adopted Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) programs pioneered by CARB’s mandate.  The addition of these state economies compounds the effects of California’s own mandate and puts even more pressure on the second large group this decision is intended to sway, the large automakers themselves.

California’s economy alone ranks about fifth largest in the world, with a total gross domestic product just a bit behind that of Germany.  The major automakers of the world simply cannot afford to ignore such a market, doubly so when the states preparing to follow in California’s footsteps get added into the equation.  This leaves large automakers now facing the decision of what to do with their future plans.  Do they split their upcoming products into two distinct lineups, ZEVs for most of Europe and blue US states, and gasoline for the rest, or do they fully convert to an emission free line-up to keep their product and supply lines unified?

With global supply chains still strained and brittle from the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, large auto manufacturers are understandably wary of dividing their production process up into distinct lines of production, each requiring unique facilities, materials, and supply chain linkages.  It is perhaps for this reason that many of the world’s largest car manufacturers seem surprisingly receptive towards California’s plan.

Though many large automakers like GM and Toyota previously backed President Trump’s attempts to revoke California’s right to set their own environmental mandates, they seem to have changed their tune now that Biden’s administration has taken office and expressed support for these kinds of proactive climate change policies.

In this new political climate, most major automakers have at least stated that they plan to comply with California’s mandate, while some, somewhat surprisingly including GM, even seem cautiously supportive of the mandate. In fact, last June, Elizabeth Winter, a GM spokesperson, stated that the automaker and California share the same vision of an all-electric future by 2035. Other big manufacturer’s like Ford and Honda have expressed similar sentiments, stating that they are excited to work with California’s regulators to help cut emississions, and that plans for transitioning into emission free lineups are already well underway.  These cautious statements of support are mitigated by concerns about the aggressive timelines imposed by the mandate, with many manufacturers expressing concerns about the ability of worldwide infrastructure and supply chains to keep up with California’s vigorous plan of action.  John Bozzella, the president and CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation (an association of over 35 major auto-manufacturers), recently echoed this sentiment with a statement on August 25th, that states that though the Association supports the goals behind the mandate,

“Whether or not these requirements are realistic or achievable is directly linked to external factors like inflation, charging and fuel infrastructure, supply chains, labor, critical mineral availability and pricing, and the ongoing semiconductor shortage. These are complex, intertwined and global issues well beyond the control of either CARB or the auto industry.”

These are valid concerns, and certainly dangers to to remain aware of as we seek to rebuild and strengthen our supply chains in a post-pandemic economy.  But handling these issues is going to be a difficult, but necessary, part of rebuilding whether the automotive industry shifts its focus to ZEVs or not. Either way, the decision is far from completely settled, with opponents still hotly contesting it in the courts of public opinion and the United States Court of Appeals DC circuit.  Why is this mandate so divisive?


ACC II: A daring step towards climate redemption or an intolerable overreach of state power?


Despite the fact that the effects of this decision are limited only to a select few new vehicles yet to even be produced, and that most of the world’s major automotive companies are cautiously supportive of the plan, there is still quite a bit of controversy over this decision. This begs the question, who stands against California’s mandate and why?
Opposition to CARB’s mandate seems to spring from two primary concerns. The first point of contention is purely a matter of practicality. Bozzella’s Automotive Innovation Association is far from the only group to express concerns about the viability of CARB’s plan. Many opponents to the measure are worried about the automotive industry’s ability to keep up with demand for more emission free vehicles in our current economic environment, and about the state’s ability to keep up with the increased infrastructural demands of more ZEVs on the roads and hooked up to the power grid.

These concerns are valid. Automakers have been struggling to keep up with the twists and turns of the post-Covid economic landscape as it is, and there are currently very few places in the US with the infrastructure to support completely electric roads.  California itself, for instance, currently only has about 80,000 public charging stations, a number nowhere near what it will need to have by 2035 if CARB’s plan goes forward.

Supporters of ACC II are quick to acknowledge such concerns, but believe that the plan includes sufficient measures to build up California’s ZEV infrastructure along its timeline to gradually solve that issue as the plan advances.  Supporters also point towards the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law on August 16th of this year.  Among other measures, this act will direct about $370 Billion dollars to be spent on addressing the effects of climate change and transitioning America’s economy towards more sources of clean energy.

The second primary source of contention against CARB’s proposal closely relates to the first.  This point of view primarily contends that transitioning to ZEVs will make little difference to the climate if those ZEVs are still being powered off of a power grid that relies on fossil fuels.

Again, ACC II supporters are quick with counter-arguments to this line of reasoning.  Supporters acknowledge that ZEVs charged on a fossil fueled grid still create emissions indirectly, but that those electric vehicles and hybrids would still be far better than traditional gas powered cars.  Furthermore, the answer to this dilemma lies in reforming our power grids to be more reliant on renewable energy sources themselves, and, specifically, eliminating coal completely.

The last source of opposition to the mandate will prove significantly more difficult for its supporters to dismiss, however.  This is because the final source of opposition is legal in nature, challenging California’s right to even set emissions mandates that are more stringent than those for the Federal Government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Though the EPA is typically responsible for the setting and enforcement of emissions standards nationwide, California has a long history of acquiring waivers to set their own, more stringent standards.  The first of these waivers pre-dates the birth of the EPA itself in 1970 under the Nixon administration.  California was granted that first waiver, and hundreds of subsequent waivers in the years since, due to the particularly brutal build up of carcinogenic smog over high traffic areas like the LA basin.  In 2019, the Trump Administration challenged the legality of California’s waiver system under a new interpretation of relevant US statutes.  The Biden Administration has since reversed that decision, but the legal battle is still ongoing with 17 different State Attorneys General filing a lawsuit challenging the legality of California’s waivers in the US Court of Appeals this May.  Both sides of this legal battle have full arsenals of arguments at their disposal, but the matter will remain up in the air until a case is set and a decision reached.  Even then, the possibility of further appeals mean that this legal battle may not be over for quite some time, or until it ends up at the steps of the US Supreme Court, or both.


What does this mean for the folks back home?

For now, the debate over ACC II remains firmly locked between talking heads and courtroom lawsuits, but the battle lines are already being drawn with an equal number of states now lining up either behind or against California’s plan.  For the time being, our home state of Florida has flexed its purple state credentials by remaining neutral, neither moving to follow CARB’s guidelines nor to sue them out of legality.

Though politically minded Floridians might be inclined to guess that their current Governor, Ron DeSantis, would follow party lines and stand firmly against the new mandate, the reality of DeSantis’ position and the future of Florida’s roadways may be a bit more complex than that.  This is because Governor DeSantis recently signed a bill to build up Florida’s own ZEV infrastructure into law, signaling a cautious openness to transitioning the state’s economy in greener directions.  That being said, we probably should not expect any legislation as bold as ACC II to come out of Tallahassee anytime soon.  Florida cannot hope to dodge the issue entirely, however, with the effects of ACC II set to influence the decisions of automakers around the world either way.

The current stances of DeSantis and the state of Florida on the necessity and validity of California’s ZEV mandate are not completely clear just yet.  What is perfectly clear, however, is that however it turns out, the running battle over ACC II will come to shape the nature of America’s roadways for decades to come.


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