Biden to set target of half of US car sales to be zero-emission by 2030

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President Joe Biden will on Thursday unveil a target backed by the Detroit automakers for half of all cars sold in the United States by 2030 to be zero-emission vehicles, the White House announced.

The move is the latest reversal by Biden of former President Donald Trump's climate and environmental policies, and aims to promote a transformation of American transportation, the biggest source of the country's carbon emissions.

"The president will sign an executive order that sets an ambitious new target to make half of all new vehicles sold in 2030 zero-emissions vehicles, including battery electric, plug-in hybrid electric, or fuel cell electric vehicles," a White House statement said.

The order will position "America to drive the electric vehicle future forward, outcompete China and tackle the climate crisis," it added.

News of the announcement drew modest praise from environmentalists, who stressed the need for additional measures given the worsening climate situation.

The Sierra Club's Katherine Garcia called the move a "meaningful signal to manufacturers," but said the target should be raised to 60 percent and be supplemented with "the strongest clean car standards possible."

Signficantly increasing electric vehicle (EV) usage in the United States -- which accounted for only about two percent of 2020 car sales -- is expected to depend on expanding charging stations and other infrastructure, as well as convincing Americans to buy the cars.

Top US automakers General Motors, Ford and Stellantis have all significantly expanded their EV investments, making the target "most likely achievable" by 2030, Executive Director of Insights at auto website Edmunds.com Jessica Caldwell said.

"But what's possibly the biggest hurdle ahead is consumer acceptance: what will it take for Americans to be willing to change their car ownership habits to go electric?" Caldwell said.

- Infrastructure debate -

In a joint statement, the "Big 3" automakers expressed their "shared aspiration to achieve sales of 40-50 percent" of the vehicles, but said the shift "can be achieved only" with initiatives such as consumer incentives to buy EVs and new infrastructure like a charging network.

Some of these measures are not included in the current infrastructure bill pending in the United States Senate, or are not funded at levels sought by the Biden administration.

The manufacturers BMW, Honda, Volkswagen and Volvo -- whose electric vehicles are often considered more advanced than their US competitors -- issued their own statement applauding the initiative.

One of America's largest unions, United Auto Workers (UAW), also rallied behind the move.

"The members of the UAW, current and future, are ready to build these electric cars and trucks and the batteries that go in them," President Ray Curry said in a statement released by the Biden administration.

The White House made no mention of Tesla, Elon Musk's company that has been credited with disrupting the US market towards EVs and leads the US market in their sales.

Although the 50 percent figure would not exceed what many American manufacturers were already considering, it is a steep target for the United States as a whole.

While around 10 percent of European car sales are of electric vehicles, they account for less than two percent in the United States, the International Energy Agency said in 2020.

Biden also intends to beef up fuel consumption and emissions regulations, which had been dramatically rolled back under Trump.

- Measured praise -

The current emissions regulations, which date from March 2020, require manufacturers to improve by 1.5 percent the energy efficiency of their vehicles between 2021 and 2026, less than the five percent demanded under Trump's predecessor Barack Obama.

The Biden administration did not immediately unveil a new emissions objective.

Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp praised the announcement as positioning the United States to compete in the emerging transportation economy.

"Countries around the world are racing to eliminate pollution from their cars and trucks," Krupp said. "(Americans) can win this race, and our prize will be good jobs, savings at the gas pump for American families, cleaner air and a safer climate."

But the Natural Resources Defense Council's Simon Mui said more aggressive action was needed immediately "given how climate change has already turned our weather so violent."

The Environmental Protection Agency "must now move expeditiously to put strong standards in place to ensure automakers deliver on that goal while also slashing pollution from gasoline and diesel vehicles," Mui said.

"Anything less puts our health and climate at unnecessary risk."

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