Unique partnership drives California’s charge for electric vehicles

September 29, 2014

Amid all the exciting momentum coming out of the UN’s 2014 Climate Summit, you may have missed an achievement that once again puts California at the forefront of environmental leadership and showcases a new way that groups from different perspectives can collaborate to effect change.

California innovation got a global spotlight when Gov. Jerry Brown arrived at last week’s Summit fresh off signing the Charge Ahead California Initiative, a new law to supercharge his state’s transition to electric cars, trucks and buses.

Reducing vehicle emissions is one of the central pillars of California’s strategy to fight climate pollution, so the summit was a fitting backdrop. As Brown put it in a video message: “We face an existential challenge with the changes in our climate. The time to act is now. The place to look is California. We’re not finished, but we sure are setting the pace.”

Charge Ahead California puts the state on a path to one million electric vehicles. To put that number in perspective, that’s more than twice as many electric cars as currently exist in the entire world. And like Kennedy’s famous moonshot, California is committed to meeting the goal in less than ten years.

Opinion-shapers like the New York Times and Washington Post homed in on the law’s most-notable innovation: opening up electric car sales to the mass market, by making clean vehicles more affordable to low- and middle-income buyers.

A New Way of Working Together

Not as visible—but with as much lasting impact—is the powerful coalition that came together to pass the law and are now working together on other fronts. Led by a steering committee of five influential groups (Coalition for Clean Air, Communities for a Better Environment, Environment California, The Greenling Institute, and Natural Resources Defense Council), the Charge Ahead campaign joined traditional conservation organizations with groups also focused on social and environmental justice.

Environmental justice groups and mainstream environmental nonprofits have not always seen eye-to-eye on climate policies. Some groups would have preferred alternatives to the low carbon fuel standard and the cap-and-trade at the center of AB 32, California’s landmark clean energy and jobs law.

From the very beginning, the Charge Ahead groups agreed to make major decisions jointly, exchange information, leverage each other’s strengths and relationships, and share opportunities for publicity and credit.

Coordinating media activities for campaign, it was inspiring to see how seamlessly it all worked.

Even when the campaign faced questions about the wisdom of limiting rebates in the hot high-end EV market, the steering committee remained unified that it would not be enough to just have more electric vehicles. In order to truly transform California’s roadways and neighborhoods, the policy would need to ensure that economic and clean-air benefits get targeted to communities that have been impacted most by pollution, where they can do the most good.

This shared priority is probably one of the reasons that the incoming Senate pro Tem Kevin de León was enthusiastic to author the Charge Ahead bill. “We’re going to lead the way in the fight against climate change by putting a million EVs on the roads, which means making them affordable to all drivers, not just the wealthy,” De León said upon the bill becoming law.

Coalitions can be hard, but the personalities involved in this one made it seem easy. The best part is that the Charge Ahead campaign won’t disband with the enactment of the law. They recognize that the best way to make sure that California actually achieves the million-electric goal is by working together to lower other barriers to expansion of the market, like charging infrastructure, consumer readiness and vehicle range.

Eric Jaffe

*Screencap from Upside: Anything is Possible