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Why California leads the country in cutting vehicle emissions

Cars drive on Highway 50 in Sacramento.
Andrew Nixon
Cars drive on Highway 50 in Sacramento.

California leads the charge nationally when it comes to pushing vehicle electrification forward. It makes sense given the fact that vehicles are the primary source of pollution in the state, especially as it’s also home to the largest auto market in the country.

On March 31st, California got approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to enact stricter emissions rules around tailpipe pollution and phase out the sale of diesel-burning trucks. This allows California to enforce more stringent rules than what’s already federally mandated. And as is so often the case, the state’s decisions have a huge impact on what others are able to do when it comes to cutting vehicle emissions.

We talked to Dan Sperling, the founding director of the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies. He was also a member of the California Air Resources Board — also known as CARB — for over a decade. There, he oversaw the adoption of many of the rules California now has in place aimed at cutting transportation emissions.

Sperling spoke with us about upcoming changes to vehicle standards in California and the state’s influence on national — and international — conversations about electrifying vehicles.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Where did California’s ability to make its own rules come from? 

The 1973 Clean Air Act amendments … started laying out all the processes and rules that the EPA should be doing and will be doing.

Because our air quality problems are more severe than the rest of the country, and also in recognition of the fact that California had already set up its own regulatory apparatus to deal with air pollution [known as CARB], we were given the right in 1972 to set our own emissions standards for vehicles as long as they were more aggressive, more stringent than the national standards.

And then seven years later, in additional amendments that were made to the Clean Air Act, the amendments said that other states had the option of either following the EPA rules or California’s. Over time, many states have opted to follow California. It was up to about 16 or 17 states the last time I looked.

What was the lead-up to this particular rule around emissions coming from trucks? 

In the last two or three years, we adopted aggressive emission standards for trucks.

We did two things with regards to trucks: One was to reduce the criteria pollutants, the conventional pollutants, from trucks. After we get the waiver [which happened on May 31], other states can implement it also.

All that's happening now is the EPA is saying, ‘okay, California, we're allowing you to actually implement that rule that you adopted.’ After we get the waiver [which happened on May 31], other states can implement it also.

Some states have already adopted the so-called Advanced Clean Truck rule, which required zero-emission truck sales.

Has it always been this way? I’m wondering when other states first started following California’s lead. 

It wasn't really until 2010 or so when a lot of states started following California. That's kind of a recent phenomenon.

They used to look at it as, ‘okay, there's that little experiment going on in the West Coast.’ But then when other states started adopting the California standards, it became a much bigger thing. Roughly a third of the population of the country was following California. It became a really big deal.

That's where it got the attention of the Trump administration and increasingly some other states that were more conservative.

Right — the Trump administration pushed back and didn’t approve some of these waivers, which California needs to enact these standards, right? 

During the Trump administration, it was an issue because they were saying they were not going to approve waivers. It became a very broad challenge to California. That was the first time there was really a broad challenge.

There was a lot of opposition from a lot of states, many of the red states, that said that California was, in a sense, creating a requirement for the whole country because so many of the states were following California and that it was creating pressure on others. They were saying California had too much power, too much authority.

There have been a lot of lawsuits, and there are actually still some lawsuits going on, challenging California's authority. But now, with the Biden Administration, it intervened … and sided with California.

So, it’s clear that California plays an important role when it comes to setting the clean air standard for other states. What does that impact look like outside the United States? 

California was the first government in the world to adopt some of these requirements. There's a lot of them we're talking about here, like this truck one, for instance, that [are] the most aggressive in the world. The requirement for zero emission trucks … was the first time in the world that any government had adopted a rule requiring essentially the phase-out of diesel trucks over time.

I just came from Europe — we have a center of my institute located in Europe — and now we're working with the European Union in adopting rules for zero emission trucks and for low carbon fuels. We've also helped China develop their own electric vehicle rules over the last ten years or so.

So these are all things that California is leading on and I'm directly involved in those discussions with these other countries. This is a case where California is clearly a leader — the leader in reducing pollution from vehicles.

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