Don’t let clean air programs expire

Truck exhaust, image by Lesterman

OPINION – The California legislature has a decision to make about the air we breathe.

Nearly every Californian – 98 percent of us – lives in a community impacted by unhealthy air, and climate change is making the job of cleaning our air more difficult. The legislature and Governor Newsom must renew clean transportation funding, and do so immediately, as the legislative clock is counting down and nearly $2 billion in clean air funds are at risk of expiring.

The transportation sector is not only the top source of climate pollution in California, but the leading reason California has the worst ozone (“smog”) pollution in the nation.

The American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2023 report puts this in stark terms. Despite decades of strong clean air progress made through life-saving policies and investments, California remains home to the most difficult pollution challenges. Six of the ten most ozone-polluted cities in America are in California, including Los Angeles, San Diego and Fresno. For particle pollution, cities from Bakersfield to Salinas appear among the most polluted. Sacramento appears among the top-ten most polluted on all measures.

Transportation pollution is linked with premature deaths, development of new asthma cases, lung cancer deaths and respiratory infections in children. This is on top of the decades of peer-reviewed literature on the broader pollution-related impacts including asthma attacks, worsening COPD, lung cancer, heart attacks and strokes in addition to thousands of deaths associated with polluted air annually in California.

The transportation sector is not only the top source of climate pollution in California, but the leading reason California has the worst ozone (“smog”) pollution in the nation.

We know these burdens fall hardest on communities of color and lower-income communities impacted by nearby freeways, ports, railyards, warehouses and other pollution hotspots.

Assembly Bill 241 by Assemblymember Eloise Gómez Reyes and Senator Lena Gonzalez would reauthorize approximately $170 million annually for the next decade in support of California’s Clean Transportation Program, Air Quality Improvement Program and the Enhanced Fleet Modernization Program. These programs promote clean air and health equity by targeting pollution from passenger vehicles, medium- and heavy-duty diesel trucks and other transportation sources. Specifically, these programs help to retire older, higher polluting cars, provide support for zero-emission truck purchases and the infrastructure needed to support the transition to zero-emissions.

Bluntly, this is a must-pass bill for sustained clean air and climate progress, and for addressing disparities in pollution burdens. Unfortunately, ongoing debates over specific technologies are threatening the future of these critical clean air programs.

Without AB 241, we will have a nearly two-billion-dollar hole in our clean air programs over the next decade. The urgency of action is clear – funding for these life-saving programs is set to expire at the end of this year.

The clean air programs at risk of expiration have a strong track record of putting cleaner vehicles on the road to cut air pollution, helping lower-income families scrap and replace high-polluting vehicles with transit passes or zero-emission vehicles, and spurring major infrastructure investment for zero-emission vehicles regardless of technology.

California standards to transition new passenger vehicle sales and trucking fleets to zero-emission will provide critical health benefits to all Californians and directly address disparities in our most overburdened and vulnerable communities. AB 241 provides reliable and sustainable funding and puts significant emphasis on cleaning up pollution in our most impacted communities, with over half of the California Energy Commission’s Clean Transportation Program funds scheduled for investments in these areas.

These are investments in health. The Lung Association’s “Zeroing in on Healthy Air” report found that a transition to zero-emission transportation and clean energy could yield over $160 billion in public health benefits, save 15,000 lives and avoid 440,000 asthma attacks in California by 2050, ensuring we meet our clean air and climate standards, prevent disparities and reduce climate impacts in communities throughout California.

To ensure all communities breathe cleaner air and that our most impacted neighbors aren’t left behind, the legislature must act in the best interests of public health and pass AB 241.

Will Barrett is the National Senior Director for Clean Air Advocacy with the American Lung Association, based in Sacramento.

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