One year ago today, Californians opened the news to learn that Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order requiring passenger vehicle sales to be exclusively zero-emission by 2035.

While the industrious nature of Newsom’s order might raise some questions about the state’s capabilities in controlling the automobile sector, the actions of California’s automobile consumers tell us that there is more work to be done, but it is possible for the state to go completely electric in the next couple decades.

Trends in the electric vehicle sector

In the 2020 annual report by the California Energy Commission (CEC), of the 28,665,934 automobiles registered in California, 635,602, or 2.2% were zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs).

Cumulative sales of ZEVs in California increased 15% from 2020, and 255% since 2016. To put it into perspective, there were only 768 ZEVs registered in California at the end of 2010. Now, California accounts for over a quarter of ZEVs in America.

Grouped with all cars in California, ZEVs make up 10.66% of total light duty car (less than 3.5 tons) sales for the first two quarters of 2021. This means that there has only been a 2.88% increase in the market share of ZEVs in the car market since last year — while still technically improving, it is not the pace Newsom and the fifth-largest economy in the world strive for in the executive order. 

At this rate, it would take just over 30 years for California to have the facilities to go completely zero-emissions on the road.

California is one of 12 states and 15 countries attempting to completely phase out the sale of gasoline-powered cars. As of December 2020, Denmark leads the world with a 18.1% market share of electric cars.

While cumulative sales give California promise, other frames of analysis tell a different story. Trends in the annual sale of ZEVs, more recently affected by the pandemic, have been rough these past few years.

After a 68% jump in annual sales in 2018, there has been a decrease in sales of light-duty ZEVs each year since. However, the 2021 sales are on pace to surpass the all-time high, with extremely strong figures through the second quarter, according to the CEC.

The Tesla Model 3 is by far the most popular electric car in California, making up 22.7%  of ZEVs in the state. Just this year, Tesla’s Model Y eclipsed the Model 3 in sales, with 27,924 new units rolling out so far.

In Orange County, just over three percent of registered vehicles are zero-emission — the second-largest ratio in the state behind Santa Clara County. 

Since Sept. 2017, every OC city was ordered to adopt and expedite the permitting of electric charging stations. According to PlugShare, there are now 102 charging stations in Costa Mesa alone.

How do the numbers reflect on Newsom’s executive order?

With only 2.2% of Californians driving ZEVs, there is a tall mountain to climb for state agencies and the private sector if they are to fulfill Newsom’s aspirations. Working in tandem, the state will need to ensure that there is an appropriate number of charging stations to energize the nearly 30 million vehicles that private manufacturers would theoretically produce in the next couple decades, as detailed in the executive order.

The expectation is that California gradually phases out gas-powered vehicles, but with another ban planned for all oil extraction in the state no later than 2045, one can assume that every Californian would need access to a ZEV by that year. The fact that 85% of the Golden State’s oil is imported could mean that gas prices remain relatively stable two decades from now, but the current trend of environmental politics in California’s biggest natural gas importers, including Canada, could very well change that landscape.

Is there any red tape?

It is important to note that the executive order will not prevent any California resident from owning gas powered cars, or selling them on the used car market. Newsom’s goal is to halt the sale of fossil fuel powered cars by 2035, expediting the adoption of electric vehicles by the public.

The order can be defined as a directive from the governor to state agencies, that simply communicates what Newsom wants agencies and industries to accomplish— so nothing is law, yet.

Depending on the political trajectory of California, this executive order could either continue to be reinforced by government agencies carrying out the wishes of environmentally-conscious governors, or it can just as easily be tossed out if a new head of state has different plans in mind regarding the energy sector.

According to the governor’s office, the transportation sector is responsible for more than half of California’s carbon pollution, and 80% of smog-forming pollution — the most critical point made in the argument for cutting vehicle emissions.

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