The major international climate agreement made waves recently as world leaders committed to limiting pollution leading to the earth's rising temperatures. But one important announcement in Paris barely broke headlines. Four countries, one Canadian province and eight U.S. states — including Maryland — announced a pledge for all new passenger cars sold by 2050 to be zero-emission vehicles. This was a big symbolic announcement. Indeed, transportation accounts for 25 to 30 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. and Europe, and most of these emissions are from the oil we burn in our vehicles.

The governments that made this historic vehicle declaration say their commitment will reduce transportation sector climate emissions by more than 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year by 2050. In Europe, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway will work to ensure petrol stations are only a memory. Here in the U.S., California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont joined Maryland in committing to a fleet-wide switch to plug-in electric vehicles (EVs).


Even factoring in emissions from the electricity used to power today's EVs, these cars are cleaner than conventional vehicles, about 25 to 80 percent lower in emissions, depending on location. EVs get even cleaner over time as we shift to more renewable electricity sources.

The changes to set EVs in motion are beginning. EV charging stations are popping up at freeway rest-stops, restaurants and apartment parking lots; and earlier this year, Baltimore moved to add roughly 20 charging stations in its municipal parking garages, doubling the current number. Cities like Oakland, Worcester and Eugene have zero emission transit buses. PepsiCo has hundreds of electric delivery trucks on the road. In California alone, there are more than 160,000 plug-in vehicle drivers delighted with their cars.

Federal light-duty vehicle standards put in place by the Obama administration ensure cars will average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, a policy pushing automakers to innovate with new EVs. Additionally, 10 states follow even stronger zero emission vehicle standards. BMW announced plans to have plug-in versions of just about all its models within the next 10 years. Volvo announced that in two years, 10 percent of its global car sales will be electric. Tesla recently began production of the first plug-in SUV. And many other more affordable models, like the Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus EV and Chevrolet Volt, are edging EVs toward the mainstream.

But today, EVs make up less than 1 percent of total monthly auto sales. To reach 100 percent EVs sold by 2050, we have our work cut out for us. Recently, the Sierra Club, Acadia Center and Conservation Law Foundation released a report, "Charging Up," highlighting vital steps to put EVs in the fast lane.

For example, before EVs are truly mainstream, consumer incentives that make EVs less expensive and more convenient are essential and should be expanded and promoted. In states like Connecticut, California, Massachusetts and Maryland, consumers receive a government rebate or tax credit of $1,500 to $3,000 when they purchase or lease an EV, in addition to the federal tax credit of up to $7,500. In Los Angeles, low-income residents will soon be able to use an EV car-sharing program. In California, Maryland and Long Island, solo EV drivers can breeze through the carpool lane.

Additionally, the utility industry nationwide should incorporate EVs into their programs by offering lower rates for off-peak EV charging, installation of charging stations and grid efficiency load management. San Diego Gas & Electric is a leader with plans to install new public charging stations, including at workplaces and apartment complexes.

Government agencies can lead by example, too. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is adding 288 plug-in vehicles to the city's police, fire and water department fleets. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that 2,000 New York City fleet vehicles will be electric by 2025. Other cities and states should take up the challenge too.

Finally, automakers and auto-dealers should make a much more concerted effort to sell EVs. If they put the same kind of zeal into inventory, advertising, training and sales efforts for EVs as they do for SUVs and pickup trucks, we'd be closer to a plug in every car.

The destination has been set. Now we need to map out how policy-makers, automakers, auto dealers, utilities and drivers will accelerate EV adoption and reach the end of the road for dirty transportation.

Gina Coplon-Newfield directs Sierra Club's national Electric Vehicles Initiative; Twitter: @GinaDrivingEV.