How California and China, Together, Can Accelerate a Global Shift to Zero-emission Vehicles

April 20, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep across the globe, now is the time for us to reflect not only on our shared vulnerability, but also on what's possible through collective action. California and China, which have both confronted this virus with great force, are also uniquely positioned to tackle the climate crisis head-on – together. One of the most effective steps we can take is to get more zero-emission vehicles on our roads. 

Why focus on transportation? The answer is simple: it’s one of the greatest sources of carbon emissions and major sources of air pollution. In China, analysts estimate that transportation emissions constitute more than 9 percent of the country’s overall carbon footprint – and that share is expanding rapidly. In cities, for example, transportation accounts for as much as 65 percent of carbon emissions in Shenzhen, and vehicle emissions are responsible for 45 percent of the total particulate matter concentrations in Beijing. Meanwhile in California, 41 percent of overall emissions come from transportation, due mostly to passenger vehicles. The share rises to nearly 50 percent when carbon emissions from producing gasoline and diesel are factored in. Notably, transportation emissions have continued to increase in California, while emissions in nearly every other sector have declined steadily in recent years. 

The good news is that we know what we need to do – and California and China have set world-leading zero-emission vehicle goals to get us there. In China, the goal is for zero-emission vehicles to account for 25 percent of total vehicle sales by 2025, increasing to 40-50 percent of total sales by 2030. Meanwhile, California aims to have 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2025 and 5 million by 2030. California also established a voluntary framework with five vehicle manufactures to reduce emissions that can serve as a path forward – alternative to the one which the federal government has now chosen – for clean vehicle standards nationwide. To help achieve these goals, both California and China have offered numerous incentives to consumers and manufacturers and aggressively invested in research and development.

As a result, in part, of these policies, California and China are dominating the global zero-emission vehicle market and have put a significant share of these vehicles on our roads. In fact, China, the number one market in the world for plug-in electric vehicles, accounted for 54 percent of the world’s 2.26 million vehicles sold last year. And by the end of 2019, 3.8 million plug-in vehicles were on China’s roads. Similarly, California accounted for nearly half of America’s plug-in vehicle sales in 2019 with 156,101 vehicles sold and approximately 700,000 vehicles on the state’s roads. 

While these figures are encouraging, the road ahead is long and winding. In 2019, plug-in vehicles represented just 8.26 percent of California’s annual new vehicle sales and overall sales of these vehicles declined year-over-year by 12 percent. And after years of zero-emission vehicle sales growth, China saw a similar trend in 2019, recording a 4 percent decline in sales year-over-year. In China, experts attribute this drop primarily to demand-side subsidy cuts and in California, the expiration of federal tax credits for purchases from many of the major manufacturers was a contributing factor. 

So where do we go from here? What can California and China do to reverse recent trends and encourage much faster adoption of zero-emission vehicles? We start by accelerating our cooperation. This means taking steps to align California and China’s zero-emission vehicle goals, policies, research and investment. Possible actions include:

  • Internal Combustion Engines: Studying options to phase out the sale of vehicles with internal combustion engines by a specific date.
  • Zero-Emission Vehicle Goals: Harmonizing zero-emission vehicle goals for 2030 – and beyond, with shared targets for new vehicles sales (as the ZEV Alliance has done) and/or zero-emission vehicle market share.
  • Charging Infrastructure: Agreeing to mutual charging infrastructure targets, while also expanding and sharing research on market opportunities and technological innovation, from the battery to the charger.
  • Procurement: Accelerating and aligning procurement requirements – in both the public and private sectors.
  • Credit-Based Requirements: Encouraging China to adopt and adapt California’s credit-based zero-emission vehicle mandate, which requires auto manufacturers to produce a specific number of zero-emission vehicles each year, based on the total number of vehicles sold by the manufacturer in the state. 
  • Market Demand: Collaborating on innovative ways to drive zero-emission vehicle market demand, including sharing best practices, expanding public-private-nonprofit partnerships (e.g. Veloz, Go Ultra Low models) and supporting demonstration projects to deploy hydrogen fuel cell technologies. 
  • Innovation and Investment: Allowing and encouraging both zero-emission heavy-duty and passenger vehicle manufacturers to compete in California and Chinese markets, while continuing to expand government and business-to-business investment, loans and grants focused on research and development of new technologies, as well as workforce development. 

Current geopolitical tensions and the COVID-19 crisis complicate this partnership between California and China, but this uncertainty should remind us that we have no time to waste. The University of California-wide California-China Climate Institute, working in partnership with the Institute of Climate Change and Sustainable Development at Tsinghua University, stands ready to drive this collaboration forward. And as California and China work ever more closely together, we have to bring in other players like the European Union, United Kingdom, Canada and Mexico. All of this, with the goal of getting more zero-emission vehicles on the road before the next United Nations climate talks. By doing this, we send a clear message to the world: zero-emission vehicles are the future.

Mary Nichols and Candace Vahlsing (California Air Resources Board); Patty Monahan and Ben De Alba (California Energy Commission); Lauren Sanchez (California Environmental Protection Agency); Prof. Ouyang Minggao and Prof. Wang Hewu (Tsinghua University); Gong Huiming (Energy Foundation China) and Evan Westrup (California-China Climate Institute) contributed to this piece.