Moving beyond fossil fuel cars

February 17, 2021

There are a number of good reasons why Biden is making electric vehicles an early priority in his administration. Investing in EVs will bring American jobs and innovation, while also addressing a massive emissions problem: Transportation is the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. (accounting for 28% of all emissions). While the transition to clean energy is making strong advances in the power sector, we need to move a hell of a lot faster on the transportation front. Electric vehicles (EVs) are a key solution for steering us away from fossil fuels, but they still only account for around 2 percent of new-car sales. To get where we need to be with electric mobility—and fast—we need to take even bolder steps.

Here’s an idea: maybe we need to… take gas- (and diesel-) powered cars out of the equation altogether—while making it cheaper and easier to go electric. Sound impossible? Think again: around the world, countries, states, and cities have taken steps to do exactly that (including China, Germany, and Japan). As more zero-emission vehicles arrive on dealership lots, banning fossil fuel cars may be just the kind of bold market-signaling action that’s needed to push the U.S. to a safer, healthier, cleaner future.

Timeline of countries banning fossil fuel powered vehicles
Click on the image to take a look at Business Insider’s timeline showing who’s ditching gas cars (and when)


What does it mean to ban fossil fuel cars?

At its simplest, banning fossil fuel cars means that national, state, or local laws restrict vehicles that burn gasoline and/or diesel in a certain place by a certain date. The ban can apply to a whole country or to a single city or district.

For example, a ban could mean that manufacturers and dealers are prohibited from the import, sale, or registration of new fossil fuel vehicles after a specific date (while existing internal combustion vehicles can still ply the roads). Other bans are geared more toward keeping polluting vehicles out of certain areas like the main downtown zone.

For governments, banning fossil fuel vehicles is attractive because it offers a pretty clear-cut way to reduce emissions and meet climate commitments. Other good reasons for getting rid of gas and diesel cars include reducing the health risks associated with tailpipe emissions (notably particulate matter and nitrogen oxides) and achieving greater energy independence by not having to import oil products.

High-level commitments

Laws to move beyond gas cars are increasingly popular—including in some of the world’s biggest auto markets. So far, at least eighteen countries, states and provinces have committed to banning sales of fossil fuel vehicles (mainly cars and buses) by 2050 or before. The list includes China, Germany, Japan, and most Scandinavian countries. In many places, the bans are just one tool for eventually achieving a zero-emission future. The UK, in its ambition to be carbon-neutral by 2050, recently moved up its ban on sales of new gasoline or diesel cars by a full decade, from 2040 to 2030.

At least eighteen countries, states and provinces have committed to banning sales of fossil fuel vehicles (mainly cars and buses) by 2050 or before.

The U.S. hasn’t come close to any such commitments—but it’s inching nearer. In his first week in office, President Biden announced that the federal government will start phasing out its use of gas-powered vehicles and replace its entire fleet of 645,000 cars and trucks with U.S.-made EVs—a move that would boost the total number of EVs in the country by at least 40 percent. Bolder proposals are also making the rounds: in 2019, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) outlined a plan to replace every gas-powered car on the road with an electric one by 2040, and the more recent Zero-Emission Vehicles Act of 2020 would require all new cars sold in the country to be zero-emission by 2035.

A few states have gotten in on the action. In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order requiring all sales of new passenger cars and trucks in California to be zero-emission by 2035. Other states have issued similar plans in the past year, including Colorado, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. Governors, like Colorado’s Jared Polis, are clear about the benefits they stand to gain from these plans: “This roadmap is a significant step forward to continue to reduce pollution for the benefit of the health and well-being of our communities and our economy.”

Cities taking the lead

Globally, action at the city level has been faster and “furious-er” (okay, worth a try), with the focus being on stopping people from using fossil fuel vehicles. By the end of 2019, at least 35 major cities (many in Europe) had plans to ban or heavily restrict the use of diesel cars and trucks, while some cities are phasing out all vehicles that have internal combustion engines. In a novel approach, Reykjavik, Iceland plans to slash the number of city gas stations by half by 2025 to deter people from driving conventional vehicles.

In the U.S., a handful of cities are taking similar steps. Los Angeles, through its Green New Deal, hopes to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, which includes upping the share of EVs in the city to 100 percent. Seattle aspires to fully electrify its Metro bus fleet by 2035, and New York City issued an executive order in early 2020 calling for a 100 percent electric, carbon-neutral city fleet by 2040. Six U.S. cities—Austin, Honolulu, L.A., Santa Monica, Seattle, and West Hollywood—are also among the 35 signatories of the Fossil Fuel Free Streets Declaration, a non-binding global pledge to ban fossil fuel vehicles on some or all city streets by 2030.

Getting into the (fossil-free) zone

Cities worldwide have rules banning drivers of fossil fuel vehicles from entering the city center or other zones, while allowing in folks that drive low- or zero-emission vehicles. The main goal of these efforts is to improve local air quality, but they also help push residents to go electric. As of 2020, there were at least 250 “low-emission zones” in European cities and around two dozen elsewhere, including in Beijing, Hong Kong, Jerusalem and Tokyo. Some cities, instead of full-time restrictions, issue temporary bans on polluting vehicles during periods of heavy smog, like Rome was forced to do in January 2020. Although temporary bans don’t directly contribute to phasing out fossil fuel vehicles, they make owning and driving them less attractive.

As of 2020, there were at least 250 “low-emission zones” in European cities and around two dozen elsewhere, including in Beijing, Hong Kong, Jerusalem and Tokyo.

The U.S. doesn’t have any designated low-emission zones—yet. However, L.A. is planning one for 2030, and Santa Monica, California is piloting the country’s first “zero-emission delivery zone” in a one-square-mile area of its main shopping and dining corridor. Although the project is only voluntary for now, the city is encouraging any deliveries of goods that occur in the zone—from food takeout to packages—to be transported in a zero-emission vehicle, like an electric delivery van, hydrogen fuel cell truck, or e-cargo bike. (Some other U.S. cities, like New York, use tools like congestion pricing to deter people from driving in high-traffic areas, but this isn’t the same as an actual vehicle ban.)

Industry’s response, and moving forward

Partly in response to the clear market signals that worldwide bans are providing, automakers are shifting away from conventional gas-guzzling offerings and introducing a wide range of EV models. In January, General Motors became the first major U.S. automaker to pledge to stop making gasoline and diesel light-duty cars and SUVs altogether by 2035 (an about-face from just months ago). As more manufacturers start electrifying pick-ups and SUVs—the most popular car types in the U.S.—bans on the sale and use of fossil fuel vehicles could start to seem a lot more palatable in the country.

The bottom line, however, is that automakers know where the industry is headed. “We’re not going to cede the future to anyone,” Ford’s CEO told CNBC last Friday. As society looks to employ the strategies that will get us to this electric endpoint the quickest, bans on last century’s technology should be part of the discussion.