Diverse Approach in California can Reverse Troubling Climate Protection and Air Quality Trends

November 13, 2018

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Conventional wisdom has been that California is making great strides toward improving its air quality and reducing its carbon footprint. Given the state’s progressive environmental policies and the sheer volume of money that California has been throwing at cleaning up pollution sources over the last couple of decades, it is a common assumption that the Golden State will gradually live up to its idyllic image.

Yet the truth is much more complicated and contrary. The fact is that, while on some measures the state has made phenomenal strides in climate protection and reducing exposure to smog and toxic air pollutants, past progress has been tempered of late with some sobering counter trends.

Concerns in the Transportation Sector

As reported this past summer, whereas the state had made progress in reducing its overall carbon emissions, California’s all-important transportation sector saw increases in climate pollutants in each of the last three reported years (2013-2016). This is particularly troubling because the transportation sector is the largest single source of greenhouse gases, and because California has been so aggressive in attacking emissions from cars, trucks and other mobile sources.

California’s all-important transportation sector saw increases in climate pollutants in each of the last three reported years (2013-2016).

If this trend was isolated, the news may not be quite so troubling. After all, California only began to seriously exert its considerable resources and policy making apparatus toward climate protection in 2006 with the passage of AB 32, the ground breaking and visionary bill that required a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gases from 1990 levels by 2020. California’s struggle against air pollution, however, began in earnest during the 1950s. And for decades, the progress was undeniable. From the mid-1970s all the way past 2010, the number of days that the South Coast Air Basin, by far the state’s largest population center, exceeded Federal air quality standards for ground level ozone (smog) steadily shrank.

This progress, however, has inexplicably been reversed in the last three years. The number of days the South Coast Air Basin exceeded ozone standards was 113 in 2015, 132 in 2016, 145 in 2017 and is likely going to be exceeded in 2018 (by September 28 the count was already at 135, with a whole quarter to go before the end of the smog year).

Although air quality officials claimed that the news was not as troubling as it appeared – the peak ozone episode was not as bad in 2018 as in prior years – it does not change the fact that there are more days of non-attainment in 2018 than in any year since 2015. And 2018 was the first time in at least 20 years that the South Coast Air Basin exceeded ozone standards for 87 straight days.

The number of days the South Coast Air Basin exceeded ozone standards was 113 in 2015, 132 in 2016, 145 in 2017 and is likely going to be exceeded in 2018.

Something is clearly amiss. In spite of the most stringent air quality regulations, arguably in the world, and after tens of billions of dollars in private and public investment in cleaner technology, particularly in the transportation sector, California is clearly in the middle of an air quality regression, and the transportation sector is emitting more carbon, not less. Although their models tell air quality regulators that there are fewer emissions, air pollution is clearly getting worse.

Possible Causes of Increased Air Pollution in Transportation

As is typical for conundrums such as these, there are many theories as to why this deterioration is taking place. In regards to air quality, some have speculated that higher temperatures and drier days in California, both of which are projected manifestations of climate change, are to blame. Others have asserted that a steadily improving economy since the 2008 recession has contributed to greater economic activity and thus to higher emissions in general. Another assertion is that a worsening affordable housing crisis is driving more and more Californians to move out to neighborhoods increasingly distant from their places of work, increasing commute times and steadily raising the vehicles miles that are traveled every year.

Yet another cause is worth serious examination. Although it is clearly politically incorrect in deep green California to suggest it, it could be policy makers’ obsession with electric vehicles. This is not to suggest that EVs emit more pollutants than conventionally-fueled autos and trucks – they do not, even when taking into account the pollution from the fossil-fuel fed power plants that still make up the plurality of California’s electricity sources. The problem may be that expectations for the market penetration of zero tailpipe emission technology have been wildly optimistic, and in the absence of effective policy alternatives and a more balanced emission reduction strategy, the state’s overdependence on the electrification of its transportation sector has resulted in this very real and disturbing backslide.

The problem may be that expectations for the market penetration of zero emission technology have been wildly optimistic, and needs a more balanced emission reduction strategy.

Adoption of Zero Emission Vehicles in California

The adoption of zero emission vehicles, particularly fuel cell and battery-electric technology, have consistently underperformed relative to the need. California first established a manufacturing requirement for zero emission vehicles in 1990. One would hope that after nearly three decades, the zero emission vehicle (ZEV) mandate would have resulted in at least a meaningful percentage of the state’s light duty vehicle fleet meeting the zero tailpipe emissions requirements. Sadly, in a state with more than 25 million registered automobiles, as of September 2018, fewer than 475,000 are ZEVs. After nearly 30 years of aggressive public policy, billions of dollars spent on incentives, and years of marketing campaigns promoting electric vehicles, it is most disconcerting to realize that only 1.9% of California’s light duty vehicle fleet is zero tailpipe emissions.

The slow adoption of ZEVs helps to explain the increase in the transportation sector’s greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory. Transportation is the single largest source of GHG emissions in the state, constituting 41% of the total inventory in 2016, and cars and light trucks emit two thirds of that total. Light duty vehicles are the single largest source of GHGs in California, outstripping even industry (118 million metric tons [MMT] of CO2e to 100 MMT in 2016). Thus, if the state does not dramatically accelerate the pace of converting gasoline and diesel fueled autos to zero tailpipe emission variants, growth in the population and vehicle miles of travel (VMT) will likely continue to add to the transportation sector’s climate emission regression.

The slow adoption of ZEVs helps to explain the increase in GHG emissions from the transportation sector. With more than 25 million registered automobiles, fewer than 475,000 are ZEVs.

Reasons for California’s Increase in Smog

Although the slow pace of ZEV adoption helps to explain the stagnation in GHG emission reductions from the transportation sector, it does not explain the setbacks in air quality. Unlike greenhouse gases, today’s light duty vehicles are orders of magnitude cleaner on criteria pollutants, and the automobile’s contribution to the region’s NOx inventory has steadily declined over the decades to a historical low of 9.3% (projected at 33 tons per day (tpd) out of 353 tpd in 2019). The explanation for recent setbacks in the South Coast Air Basin’s smog quotient must lie elsewhere.

The reason that we have more smoggy days is because most of the NOx emissions come from the diesel sector, and this sector has been even slower to electrify than the light duty sector. As difficult as it has been to convince consumers to purchase zero tailpipe emission cars, where there are dozens of excellent commercially available models ready for car buyers, we can expect the heavy-duty sector to be a much tougher sell. The models simply are not there, and it will take another decade or so to provide truck buyers with the ZEV choices that auto buyers now enjoy.

The bleak reality is that consumer acceptance of ZEVs has been much too slow and sales much too meager to counter other economic and social trends, such as increased economic activity, population growth, greater vehicle miles traveled, and more vehicles on the road. Unfortunately, the state’s air quality regulators have not adapted their strategy to this long-recognized reality, and instead have doubled down on their unbalanced approach to cleaning up emissions from the transportation sector.

Increased Smog Impacts Our Communities

The problem with the state’s overdependence on EVs as the foundation of its climate and air quality policy is being borne out today. The air, particularly in communities disproportionately impacted by smog and toxic air contaminants, is not only not getting cleaner, it is getting dirtier. This failure to maintain reasonable further progress will adversely impact millions of Californians, particularly those in low income neighborhoods and communities of color. Exposing countless Californians to additional years of elevated cancer, heart disease and asthma risk is an unacceptable price to pay.

The High Cost of Electrification

What is more, the state’s ongoing investments in EVs are among the least cost-effective expenditures California is making toward cleaning up both the air and reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. The California Air Resources Board’s own reports on the cost effectiveness of the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund report this problem. Recent analysis of the incentive programs created by the state to support the purchase of low emission vehicles reveals that rebates issued for battery-electric and plug-in hybrid technologies are among the least cost effective ways to spend public dollars on emission reductions, yielding costs per ton of NOx reduced from $511,000 to $3.2 million, where costs around $20,000 per ton are more the norm.

Although electric, hybrid and fuel cell transportation technology is the future, more must be done in the near term to achieve progress on climate and air quality protection.

A Balanced Approach Is the Solution

To counter this alarming trend, policy makers must develop a much more thoughtful and balanced approach to air quality and climate protection policy, one that focuses on obtaining emission reductions more rapidly and cost effectively. Although electric, hybrid and fuel cell transportation technology is the future, more must be done in the near term to reverse this disturbing inertia in progress. More effort and resources need to be devoted to converting the heavy-duty sector to currently available, near zero emission alternatives to diesel, and these alternatives must be derived from low carbon, renewable resources. As noted in earlier articles, if California would dedicate only 8% of its GGRF monies every year to funding the purchase of commercially available near zero emission heavy-duty trucks and buses, the adverse GHG emission and smog trends we have seen in recent years would be reversed.

There have been many benefits from California’s push for zero tailpipe emission vehicles, and some day these technologies will mature and become the mainstay of our transportation system. But the reality is that these transitions take much longer than anticipated, and the consequence of this fact, we now see, is dirtier air. Over reliance on a single strategy is never a good idea. The state must immediately diversify its efforts, provide more options for emissions reductions, and build additional ways to achieve reasonable further progress on climate and air quality protection.