Oped by Jenna Wadsworth, Vice-Chair of the Soil and Water Conservation District Board of Supervisors, represents 1.2 million people of Wake County, North Carolina.

Jenna Wadsworth, Vice-Chair of the Soil and Water Conservation District Board of Supervisors, represents 1.2 million people of Wake County, North Carolina.

Affluent Americans are kids in a candy shop, energized by a sugar rush when shopping for electric vehicles with a variety of high-end features to explore. Recently I did a ride-along in a brand new, customized Tesla with a 400-mile range. It was a smooth, quiet ride. The safety features would make anyone swoon. The dashboard display showed if we were approaching a red light and notified us when the stoplight turned green. If we were too close to a curb or another vehicle we were alerted. This model has full self-driving capabilities and can even be summoned to pick you up. Just imagine how this could transform security for transporting children to and from school, enhance accessibility and independence for senior citizens to get to their medical appointments and the grocery store without having to have a caregiver present, as well as prevent exhausted workers who are in danger of falling asleep during their commutes from becoming statistics. In the long-run, the vehicle will hold its value while costing less in repairs and maintenance than a vehicle with a combustion engine. Even better, Plug-in North Carolina estimates that operating costs of an EV such as this one have a price tag that’s 1/3 of running a standard gasoline vehicle over the same mileage range. 

Addressing climate change is a consumer option when purchasing a new vehicle, but let’s imagine a future where it is the only choice. What does that mean for communities like the ones we serve? Transportation currently accounts for nearly 1/3 of our country’s carbon output. The government is in the process of electrifying their vehicle fleet, but it’s going to take all of us working towards this end in order to revolutionize our transportation sector and produce greener outputs. The reality is that most folks can’t afford a $50,000-$100,000 price tag that comes with driving a new EV home from the dealership, and that’s especially true after job losses and economic crises which have been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

To actualize our goal of realizing a more sustainable transit sector we must center equity and climate justice in our plans. This means taking care of the communities which now find themselves on the frontlines of the environmental justice movement because of years of having to bear the brunt of tailpipe pollution; unsustainable policies and a lack of both governmental and private sector investment; limited and ever-dwindling access to good-paying union jobs; and the effects of gentrification encroaching upon communities of color while policymakers simultaneously prioritize access to downtown urban cores at the expense of lower socioeconomic areas which are the first to be sacrificed for the development of new highways and interstate offramps.

Here in North Carolina, Governor Roy Cooper signed Executive Order 80 which commits the state to addressing climate change and transitioning to a clean energy economy with a goal of putting 80,000 zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2025. Our state Department of Transportation developed a ZEV plan with public input and has made the number of monthly registrations of electric vehicles by county publicly available while working to make charging infrastructure more widely available, even utilizing Volkswagen settlement money for expanding EV charging capabilities in rural communities. The plan looks to educate consumers about EVs; increase affordability through green vehicle loans with credit unions and through financial incentives for consumers, dealerships, and original equipment manufacturer rebates; as well as encouraging the development of secondary electric vehicle markets. 

The groundwork for a greener future is already being laid in my state, but the pace of progress could be further accelerated with buy-in from the federal government. Under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency — which will be run by North Carolina’s own Secretary Michael Regan — has the authority to set greenhouse gas emission standards for passenger vehicles and light-duty trucks. The Zero-Emission Vehicles Act of 2020 would amend the Clean Air Act by requiring EVs and fuel-cell vehicles to make up 100 percent of new passenger cars sold in the country by 2035.

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s Clean Car Plan, which has become a part of President Biden’s climate agenda, holds the promise of revolutionizing more than just our transportation infrastructure in this country. Supporting this initiative and making it law is both an economic and moral imperative. Too many frontline communities live and breathe the reality of systemic environmental racism every day solely due to their zip codes. Many are living in forgotten and underserved neighborhoods next to highways. A national car plan to electrify vehicles, which includes substantial incentives for rebates and trade-ins for all income levels, will help ensure better health outcomes while delivering on the new Administration’s commitment to equity and justice for all.

Breathing clean air should be everyone’s right. America can lead in clean car manufacturing, put people back to work, invest in communities — especially those on the frontlines — prioritize public health, and build the future our children deserve. Tomorrow won’t wait, so we must get to work serving the greater good today.