Did you hear the one about California fighting wildfires by banning gasoline cars?
October 1, 2020
California Gov. Gavin Newsom made headlines by signing an executive order Wednesday banning the future sale of new gasoline-powered cars and trucks. In the wake of the devastating California fires, he said more ambitious steps are needed to reduce climate change. Banning gas transport, he said in a statement, “is the most impactful step our state can take to fight climate change.” Poetically, he stressed that “our cars shouldn’t make wildfires worse.”
While the governor is correct that climate change is a real problem that we should fix smartly, most of his analysis is seriously flawed, and his solution is depressingly inefficient.
It is misleading to claim that the ban will achieve more than a 35% reduction in the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Since the ban will only take effect in 2035 for new cars and trucks, it will have very little impact for the next 15 years. And after that it will only slowly phase in a reduction.
Moreover, this claim assumes that banning gasoline transportation and switching to electric cars will entirely eliminate all transportation emissions. That is wrong. All of California’s on-road transportation emissions made up 36.5% of the state’s emissions in 2017, its latest published year. But the ban only comprises about 26 percentage points of the emissions, leaving most of the rest from heavy-duty trucks to be banned 10 years later (and even then, it is unclear if such a ban is realistically possible).
Electric cars still cause emissions, especially from the production of their batteries. They also cause emissions while running off electricity, unless this electricity is entirely zero-emissions. Using the International Energy Agency’s latest estimates of emissions from gasoline and electric cars and adjusting to the lower carbon intensity in the California grid, a gasoline-powered car will over its lifetime emit 34.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide or its equivalents. An electric car with an 80 kWh battery using California electricity will emit 20 tonnes over its lifetime. A switch will not eliminate transportation emissions, but reduce them by less than half and over many decades.
There would still be substantial emissions, even if we imagine a best-case scenario, where Californians embrace small electric cars with small batteries and short range. Imagine also batteries assembled with the lowest possible emissions, using Canadian refined nickel, using aluminum produced with hydroelectric power without releasing fluorocarbons, and using renewable electricity for all other production. Each Californian wonder-vehicle would still emit 14.6 tonnes of greenhouse gases over its lifetime.
But surely, governor Newsom’s edict would still help reduce emissions substantially in decades from now? Well, his own press release undercuts that claim by suggesting, not implausibly, that “by the time the new rule goes into effect, zero-emission vehicles will almost certainly be cheaper and better than the traditional fossil fuel-powered cars.” In that case, rational consumers will pick the cheaper and better electric cars. The emission reductions claimed by Newsom will instead be caused by simple and straight-forward technological innovation.
But not only is Newsom’s analysis seriously flawed, his policies are egregiously inefficient. Tax credits and rebates can cost the public up to $10,000 per electric car in California, not including the added benefits of access to high-occupancy lanes, free parking and free electricity. Yet, it cuts at most 20 tonnes of greenhouse gases over the vehicle’s lifetime.
We can achieve a similar cut much cheaper on the world’s regional carbon trading exchanges. In the Northeastern U.S. exchange known as Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, for instance, you can pay power plants to cut global emissions by 19.6 tonnes for less than $125. Paying $10,000 to achieve the same benefits that $125 can buy is a bad deal.
Moreover, his claim that this will meaningfully help tackle future California wildfires is absurd. He is right that global warming creates a more favorable fire environment by increasing hot and dry conditions. But some experts estimate this plays a minor role. The much more important factor is the way we manage lands.
California used to burn much more before global warming. According to researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, the state typically saw between 4.4 and 11.9 million acres burn every year before 1800. This means up to 12% of the entire state burned every year. Back then, the researchers conclude, “skies were likely smoky much of the summer and fall in California.”
But for more than 100 years, as fire suppression became the norm, fire declined precipitously. Because most fires were stopped early, this left ever more unburned fuel in the forests.
When we keep suppressing fire, we ask for bigger and fiercer future fires. We know how to fix this: We have to make many more prescribed burns that eliminate the built-up fuel. This is doable, smart and it would actually help reduce fire risks in just a few years. Unfortunately, because of popular opposition, legal challenges and regulatory limits, according to research published in Nature, California manages prescribed burns for less than one-thousandths of what is needed.
Focusing on alleviating wildfire with electric cars is both bad science and policy. Instead of expensively doing little by slowly phasing in electric cars over the next many decades, Newsom should fast-track prescribed burns to actually tackle wildfire over just a few years. But he wouldn’t get as many headlines.
Bjorn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His new book is “False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet.”