The Unpopular Step That Would Popularize Electric Vehicles | Atlantic Cities

Eric Jaffe at The Atlantic Cities writes about my recent Foreign Affairs Article: Electric Avenue: How to Make Zero-Emissions Cars Go Mainstream


There is a pretty direct way to popularize zero-emission cars, but in political terms it would be a very unpopular step: issue a carbon tax. Owning a traditional fuel-engine car would become much less appealing if its sticker or gas prices included the cost done to the environment. Transport scholar David Levinson makes the argument in the May-June issue of Foreign Affairs:

A better, although more politically difficult, policy would be to charge those who burn gasoline and diesel fuel for the full economic and social cost of their decision. Right now, pollution is essentially free in the United States; drivers don’t pay anything for the emissions that come from their tailpipes, even if they’re driving a jalopy from the 1970s. If the government were to charge people for the health-damaging pollutants their cars emit and enact a carbon tax, the amount of pollution and carbon dioxide produced would fall. Consumers would drive less, retire their old clunkers, and be more likely to purchase electric vehicles.

Levinson concludes that cars are at a historical juncture similar to the one they faced a little more than a century ago. Back then the fuel-engine (thanks largely to invention of a self-starter) emerged from a group of competitors that included electric- and even steam-powered cars. Tomorrow’s winner may not be clear, but the mere fact that the contest has reopened is some form of progress.

The last paragraph refers to my article: Electric Antecedents: How the Electric Vehicle Evolved