States Have Led the Way on Clean Cars

By: Blair St. Ledger-Olson, Legislative Director for Climate Cabinet Education


Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed bold updates to federal light duty vehicle standards that aim to dramatically accelerate electric vehicle (EV) deployment. The transportation sector is the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., making EVs a crucial solution in tackling the climate crisis. Furthermore, fossil fuel powered cars also create significant air pollution, leading to detrimental health impacts that are particularly borne by black and brown communities. The proposed new rules are the most aggressive standards ever set by the federal government, and they are designed to ensure that EVs make up the majority of new U.S. auto sales by 2032 – specifically 67% of new passenger vehicles. But the Biden administration can’t take all of the credit – this development follows a groundswell of leadership by the states.

While vehicle emissions standards – or fuel economy – have historically fallen under federal jurisdiction, California was given unique authority to set their own standards due to their specific air pollution concerns. Individual states were then given the option to adopt California’s standards as well, instead of abiding by the less stringent federal standards. The California standards are made up of a Low Emissions Vehicle (LEV) and Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) program, where the required number of cleaner cars to be sold in the respective state ramps up each year. Today, there are 17 states that have adopted either one or both components of the original Advanced Clean Car Standards, known as “Clean Cars states.” Together, these states and California represent more than 40% of the U.S. car market. However, the original version of the Advanced Clean Car Standards (ACCI) is set to expire in 2025, making way for an updated – and even bolder – version, known as the Advanced Clean Car Standards II (ACCII). 

California Air Resources Board (CARB): 17 additional states have adopted components of the original clean car standards.

The ACCII sets a path to 100% new vehicle sales being zero-emission – including both full battery EVs and plug in hybrid EVs. The ACCII will require almost 70% of the vehicles sold in participating states to be electric by the end of this decade, with increasing sales requirements leading to 100% of new vehicles being fully electric or plug-in hybrid by 2035. 

Sound familiar? While not as aggressive as the ACCII, the proposed new federal rules clearly look to the example set by the Clean Cars program, which is a pattern often seen in federal policy. Time and time again history has shown how passing state laws has led to a federal victory. Women’s suffrage and interracial marriage are clear examples of this path, and we’re seeing climate policy follow it as well. 

But this does not mean that states can now abdicate climate leadership to the federal government. Clean Cars states are actively in the process of deciding whether they will adopt these new ACCII standards come 2025, or revert back to the federal guidelines, and every state that has the ability should move forward with the ACCII. The federal standards now raise the floor on this issue by aiding states that do not have the legislative or gubernatorial makeup needed to adopt the bolder standards. Either way, states and municipalities still have a role to play in passing additional complementary policies that uplift our clean energy transition and ensure the success of bold EV standards. 

There is a clear roadmap for more states to adopt the Clean Car Standards. States like Michigan and Arizona could be ones to watch in the coming years, and Climate Cabinet Education is here to help. As on-demand climate staffers for state and local lawmakers, we’ll continue connecting climate champions in states with the resources and tools they’ll need to become the 18th, 19th, and 20th states to join the Clean Cars movement.