Interstate 64 outside of Waynesboro. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

By Michael Town

Over the past several years, Virginia has taken leaps and bounds forward in the transition to cleaner electricity sources and how we, as a commonwealth, are addressing the climate crisis.

This culminated last year in the passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a blueprint to completely decarbonize the electricity sector by mid-century, and what will be the commonwealth’s guiding energy policy for years to come.

Under the new Biden Administration, we can expect climate action and clean energy to again be a federal priority, and fortunately, Virginia will be ahead of the curve as we work together as a nation to regain our footing on the national stage as a leader in addressing climate change.

But while we have made huge steps forward in Virginia in powering our daily lives with cleaner sources of electricity, these efforts have really only addressed about one-third of Virginia’s carbon pollution, those emissions that come from fossil-fuel burning power plants.

Nearly half of all of our carbon pollution comes from the transportation sector and mostly from the cars, light-duty trucks and SUVs we drive every day. And this pollution is lethal, contributing to the deaths of n estimated 750 Virginians a year, according to the Harvard School of Public Health — about the same number that die in traffic accidents each year.

And, as with most sources of pollution, communities of color and low-income regions are on the frontlines, breathing disproportionately dirtier air than White and well-off neighborhoods.

Addressing this major source of pollution — Virginia’s largest by far — is the complex but achievable task at hand before lawmakers this General Assembly and it’s paramount that we act now if we want to protect tomorrow.

House Bill 1965 from Del. Lamont Bagby would make Virginia the next state with standards in place to help ensure a cleaner transportation future by requiring car manufacturers to stock and sell more electric vehicles on their lots — starting at 8 percent for model year 2025. This legislation passed out of committee on Wednesday on a vote of 13-9 and is now before the full House of Delegates. 

Because Virginia is one of the states without what’s called a “Clean Cars Standard” in place, electric vehicle stock is hard to come by as these vehicles are being sold primarily in states that have already committed to cutting carbon and working to electrify their fleet. This is true even as demand is high for these clean cars — between one-third and half of Virginians are considering an EV as their next vehicle.

But in order to really make this work for Virginia, the Clean Cars Standard shouldn’t stand alone: We also need the right mix of incentives to spark the electric vehicle market and investment in EV charging infrastructure to make sure that EVs are accessible and practical. These are advances we’re committed to achieving.

This is why in addition to working with Del. Bagby, we’re also working with other legislative champions and the Virginia Auto Dealers Association to advance measures that will make it easier to buy, sell, own and operate EVs in Virginia. This includes an upfront rebate program as proposed in Del. David Reid’s House Bill 1979 and further expanding vehicle charging infrastructure as called for in House Bill 2282 from Del. Rip Sullivan, House Bill 2001 from Del. Dan Helmer, and Senate Bill 1223 from Sen. Jennifer Boysko.

We must also look at transportation in Virginia at a holistic level. Owning a passenger vehicle isn’t feasible for every Virginian, which is why we must also look at ways to modernize transit and public transportation, with a focus on ensuring equitable access, as called for in legislation (HJ 542) from Richmond Del. Delores McQuinn.

Addressing the climate crisis isn’t simple – there just isn’t a quick fix. Solutions to climate change revolve around changing our business-as-usual, status quo approach to how we do things both on a macro and micro level.  

Lawmakers in Virginia have already transformed how we will power our daily lives in the future, taking advantage of innovation in the clean energy sector that will create jobs and fuel our economy. It’s now time to extend this vision — and the economic opportunities that come with it — to how we get from Point A to Point B.

By moving forward now, lawmakers will have taken the action necessary to protect public health, the environment and our future, while also signaling to the rest of the nation that we take our duty and role in addressing the climate crisis seriously.

We look forward to working alongside our environmental champions at the General Assembly to get this done now, in 2021, while laying the foundation for cleaner air for years to come.

Michael Town serves as Executive Director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters. You can contact him at [email protected].