WASHINGTON — You will drive an electric car, and sooner than you think.
That’s the upshot of the climate plans coming out of the 2020 Democratic field. Several candidates are calling for phasing out sales of fossil fuel-burning vehicles within the next two decades and would encourage the shift with hundreds of billions of dollars for research, consumer incentives and charging infrastructure.
Following the lead of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a former 2020 contender, many candidates have set a target date for, at minimum, requiring all new passenger vehicles be zero-emission: Sen. Kamala Harris of California and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg put it at 2035, for example, while Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts aim for 2030.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has an even more ambitious goal: moving the entire transportation sector to zero-emissions vehicles by 2030 through hundreds of billions of dollars in incentives to trade in old cars and trucks.
“We are all going to love driving our electric cars,” entrepreneur and 2020 contender Andrew Yang said at a CNN climate forum. He's suggested a voluntary buyback program for fossil-fueled cars.
The candidates' approaches set up a general election clash with President Donald Trump, who has mocked electric cars and taken steps to deregulate the industry to allow vehicles to pollute more even as automakers increasingly bank on a battery-powered future — with or without his support.
The Democratic proposals reflect the party’s bolder approach in 2020, animated by activism around the Green New Deal, but also by the brutal math of climate change. Getting to zero-emissions around the world by 2050, which the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says is necessary to limit global warming to a 1.5 degree Celsius increase in temperature (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), requires moving past fossil-fuel burning vehicles. They make up about 29 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
“When we look at the pollution reductions we need, transportation is the largest source of emissions out of any sector of the U.S. economy,” Don Anair, who manages research on clean vehicles at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told NBC News. “It’s critical to tackling climate change.”
But for Democrats, the politics of mandating the trend ahead of the U.N. panel's recommended schedule could be tricky as Republicans look to portray their opponents as virtue-signaling scolds who want to tell voters how to live and eat. Opposition to enviro-friendly paper straws has already become a rallying cry for conservatives in 2020. The Trump campaign even sells plastic ones on its website with the pitch "liberal paper straws don't work."
But straws, unlike cars, are mostly irrelevant to stopping climate change — and they're not ingrained in the American identity in a way that slots perfectly into a culture war. Nobody ever said the perfect country and western song has to have a straw in it, but they have said that about trucks.
Even before the latest Democratic proposals, Trump spent months deriding electric cars as part of a broader denunciation of the Green New Deal and similar efforts.
“They want you to have one car instead of two, and it should be electric, OK?” the president said in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference this year. At another event, in Michigan, he did an impression of a husband asking his wife, “Darling, where do I get a charge?” after running out of juice on the road.
“In theory, people want to be more sustainable,” Republican strategist Matt Gorman told NBC News. “When you get into practice, that’s when the rubber meets the road and it can get troublesome very quickly.”
Public polling has shown the Green New Deal and related climate proposals are relatively popular. But a poll by the left-leaning think tank Data for Progress in March also found that requiring new cars to be electric by 2030 was the least popular environmental policy they tested, with voters opposing it by 15-point margin.
“We live in a ‘car-triarchy,’” the think tank's founder, Sean McElwee, told NBC News. “This has been pretty consistent in the polling we’ve done.”
Democrats have one big advantage, however: The industry is already preparing for something like a post-Green New Deal world. While electric vehicles made up just over 1 percent of American sales in 2018, with Tesla dominating the market, major automakers are planning to roll out an array of electric vehicles in the coming years.
Industry analysts see a potential tipping point in the next few years as battery technology improves and allows the cost of new electric cars to drop below gas-powered ones. General Motors CEO Mary Barra declared last year that the company’s future is “zero emissions” — an announcement that drew a rebuke from Trump. Volkswagen plans to launch nearly 70 electric car models over the next decade.
“The overall automotive sector globally is progressively moving toward electric vehicles,” Scott Shepard, a London-based auto industry analyst for Navigant Consulting Inc., said. “The main triggers for that are regulatory policies.”
To McElwee, this creates an opportunity for Democrats. A progressive White House might spur electric vehicles with policy, but it's automakers who will be making the strongest case to the public with a marketing budget that dwarfs political spending.
“There is a sort of sense of electric vehicles now as these coastal-elite-type things,” McElwee said. “That’s the kind of thing an advertising campaign would be designed to solve.”
There are signs this is starting to happen. As companies get ready to unveil more electric models aimed at broader markets, they're pitching customers on potential upsides like no more gas costs, easier maintenance and more responsive handling rather than depicting the vehicles as a sacrifice to save the planet.
Ford, for example, is preparing customers for a pivot with a campaign to counter “myths” about new electric vehicles like its upcoming Mustang-inspired SUV. It recently put out a video of an electric prototype version of its iconic F-150 pickup truck hauling more than 1 million pounds of freight, countering the image of electric vehicles as an urban commuter phenomenon.
This helps explain the unusual dynamic of the Trump administration trying to loosen regulations to allow cars to burn more gasoline only to get pushback from the same auto companies that would supposedly benefit from the change.
Trump has raged on Twitter about the move recently, and his administration has launched an antitrust inquiry into four automakers who came to an agreement with regulators in California — the center of the electric-vehicle boom — on stricter mileage standards.
On Wednesday, Trump announced his administration is revoking California's authority to set its own vehicle emissions standards, which effectively required automakers to produce zero-emissions vehicles — a widely anticipated move that came as the administration also prepares to roll back the strict Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards set under President Barack Obama.
But it’s not just American regulatory issues that car companies have to think about. France and the United Kingdom are planning to phase out sales of gas and diesel vehicles by 2040. China is making a big push to build out its own electric car industry, and India’s government is aggressively pursuing a transition as well. Norway wants to phase out fossil-fuel vehicles by 2025, and it's making rapid progress: About 60 percent of new car sales were electric in March.
Getting too far behind the times could mean not being able to sell cars in major markets around the world.
There’s still skepticism about how quickly electric vehicles could replace gas-powered ones in America. Brett Smith, a director at the Center for Automotive Research, said he’s seen predictions in the past of a “hockey stick” effect, where customers suddenly flock to electric vehicles at an exponential pace.
“It’s never come,” Smith said. “But this is the first time where I see the automotive industry putting unimaginable amounts of money into it.”
The transition requires convincing customers not used to electric vehicles to adopt a new way of thinking about energy, one in which they mostly keep their car topped off with a charging station at home or work. Experts also say a psychological roadblock remains for people worried they won’t be able to find a charging station on a long trip or will be stuck for a long time waiting for batteries to recharge, especially in rural areas.
This is where Democratic proposals could make a big dent in the timeline for adopting electric vehicles. Virtually all the front-runners in the polls, including candidates like former Vice President Joe Biden who have not proposed a firm date for phasing out fossil-fueled cars, have plans to spend billions of dollars on new charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. Expanding tax credits for purchases of the vehicles could also encourage people to switch.
“The economic case is very likely to tip to electric vehicles soon,” said Anair, of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The next step is charging support and what state and federal policies can put into the market.”
In the end, the ability of Democrats to win the political argument over electric cars might come down to whether customers like the product.
“With paper straws, it was a case where people abruptly changed to it, and it’s just plainly not a good product,” Gorman, the Republican strategist, said. “With cars, they need to continue to find a way to make it as seamless as possible for people to do it.”