California needs a comprehensive plan for air quality

Morning pollution over Longt Beach. (Photo: Katharine Moore, via Shutterstock)

We all have witnessed the devastation of climate change. As I write this, our California neighbors in Napa, Sonoma and up north are losing homes and businesses to wildfire. Every year, wildfire season is more severe than the year before.

But the ravages of wildfire are not the only harmful result of climate change that is impacting us. The very air we breathe contains toxins from diesel and gas-powered vehicles that is related to asthma rates and other health ailments. Diesel engine exhaust, in fact, is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as “carcinogenic to humans,” and similarly classified by the U.S. EPA as “likely carcinogenic to humans.”

With only 8% of Californians currently driving zero-emission vehicles, there is a long road ahead of us.

This is not acceptable. We must ask our policymakers for immediate and long-term changes so that the air we breathe is healthy and not filled with toxins.

The Healthy Air Alliance commends Gov. Newsom’s commitment to bold action to improve air quality in California. His executive order bans all new car sales of new gas-powered cars in California by 2035. While some may say it’s aspirational, the goal lines are clear: California will no longer accept the proliferation of our current toxin-emitting vehicles to continue.

With only 8% of Californians currently driving zero-emission vehicles, there is a long road ahead of us. Costs and infrastructure are significant impediments, as 17.2% (nearly one of every five Californians) are considered at or below the poverty line when housing and costs of living are taken into account. This is the highest rate across the nation. Furthermore, nearly half (46%) of Californians rent their home, which may further limit access to electric charging for electric vehicles (EVs).

While we know where we need to go and by when, there are actions policymakers can take now for healthier air. This generation’s children should not suffer the health impacts because we are waiting for costs to go down and infrastructure to be built for the remaining 92% of Californians without a zero-emission vehicle.

California must take a more comprehensive approach to climate and air quality, starting by speeding investments in cleaner modes of public transportation that everyone can afford. That includes zero carbon and low carbon transit and school buses.

It also includes planning and public investment in more walkable and bikeable mobility options that promote greater safety, better health and cleaner air. Making our public transit system more affordable – or free – would not only improve mobility for residents of vulnerable communities, it will reduce the number of personal vehicles on the road.

Policymakers should also put stricter limits on gasoline, including eliminating known cancer-causing chemicals. Low carbon fuel blends made with renewable alternatives are readily available to take their place, but access to these fuels in California is currently limited. Biofuel alternatives can also make the near-term transition to carbon neutrality more accessible and affordable.

The reality is that the Central Valley and neighborhoods across Southern California are home to the most polluted air in the country.

Renewable fuels can be used in most vehicles and would cost less for the many Californians struggling to make ends meet. By replacing carbon-intensive fossil fuels, and jettisoning harmful emissions from cars and trucks, we can make swift improvements in air quality and our health.

For example, there was a Southern California longitudinal study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last year that determined “as the levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter in the air went down, the number of children who developed asthma went down.” One of its conclusions was that the smallest improvements to our air makes a noticeable difference in health.

Furthermore, our policymakers should finally consider passing policies that will protect schools and communities from toxins emitted by nearby oil wells. Health and safety buffer zones make sense around schools and playgrounds and could help limit exposure to toxins in communities closest to these oil wells.

Some of these proposals will help a little and some will make a significant difference in our air, but we must jumpstart smart policies that will make a difference to the communities who breathe unhealthy air every day. It is unfair for anyone to breathe these toxins for the next fifteen years and beyond, especially with solutions at our fingertips that can make a difference now.

The reality is that the Central Valley and neighborhoods across Southern California are home to the most polluted air in the country. The communities closest to our freeways are not only some of our most disadvantaged, but they are also choked by unhealthy air.

While the state moves toward zero-emissions, we should not leave behind residents who will be driving gas-powered cars for decades to come while EV prices remain out of reach.

Progress should not be measured by our grandchildren’s children, but by our own. Families suffering from poor air quality in heavily-trafficked transportation corridors cannot wait 15, 20, or 30 years for relief from dirty air. As we make our way to our new goal in 2035, future generations are relying on us to take the immediate steps that will help make everyone breathe easier.

Editor’s Note: Jim Kennedy is executive director of the Healthy Air Alliance, a coalition of groups seeking cleaner fuels, lower carbon emissions and health improvements in vulnerable communities.

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