Clean Transportation Accelerating Environmental Justice

February 6, 2023

With the new year, clean transportation stakeholders in California must consider the transformational year ahead, as sustained decarbonization efforts will only continue with Governor Newsom’s recent reelection. The governor signed a number of laws last fall aimed at curbing air pollution as part of his $54 billion California Climate Commitment to cut air pollution by 60% while creating four million new jobs over the next two decades.

The State’s efforts coupled with new technologies, an improved supply chain, and federal public policies like President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act should fuel yet another ambitious year for clean transportation progress. However, clean transportation stakeholders must align these new legislative developments with existing policy, such as Assembly Bill 617 (AB 617) which turns six years old this year.

AB 617 ensures disadvantaged communities benefit from federal, state, and local decarbonization policies and investments. The communities –  through grassroots, collaborative, and inclusive measures – advise the California Air Resources Board on the plans they craft to improve local air quality. In all, California has identified 17 disadvantaged communities. Each historically disenfranchised community works “with their local Air District in crafting community-specific plans to reduce both air pollution emissions and exposures using a variety of strategies based on incentives, enhanced enforcement and rulemaking.” As leaders, the communities devise and adopt measures that are critical to alleviate the worst air quality in the nation.

The American Lung Association (ALA) reported in its 2022 “State of the Air” report that Californians are among the most impacted by poor air quality: the city of Fresno has the worst short-term particle pollution of any metropolitan area; the city of Bakersfield has the most polluted year-round particle pollution; and the city of Los Angeles is the city suffering from the worst ozone pollution in the country.

Air districts like the South Coast Air Quality Management District (South Coast AQMD) are crucial players in reducing air pollution in disadvantaged communities because they are local and understand the nuances residents face. Likewise, community-based organizations like environmental justice nonprofits and grassroots advocacy groups play a crucial role on the ground. South Coast AQMD’s air management plan to improve the lives of residents of disadvantaged communities notes that children living in these communities are at-risk of higher asthma exacerbation and other pulmonary complications. These conditions result in higher correlations in school absences and hospital admissions, as well as mortality rates.

The South Coast is home to a diverse population who are at-risk of disproportionate complications from air pollution: “people of color were 61% more likely than white people to live in a county with a failing grade for at least one pollutant” and “3.6 times more likely than white people to live in a county with three failing grades.” Consequently, adults in disadvantaged communities facing disproportionately higher exposure to these pollutants than non-disadvantaged counterparts are more likely to face and die from lung cancer according to the ALA.

California’s clean transportation decisionmakers must heed AB 617 considering the Biden Administration’s historic prioritization of environmental justice. The administration’s Justice40 Initiative is a transformative investment in marginalized and overburdened communities to ensure that fundamental reforms to the clean transportation industry by way of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill and Inflation Reduction Act will deliver 40% of the overall benefits to disadvantaged communities that have been historically underserved in the fight against air pollution. Like its national counterpart, AB 617 addresses environmental inequities impacting disadvantaged communities, so studying AB 617 is prudent to integrate federal policies.

Clean transportation stakeholders pursuing the billions of dollars in federal incentives for infrastructure projects in California must design their projects with triple-bottom line benefits. That is, social and environmental benefits should be prioritized alongside economic profits. Doing well by doing good pays off — clean transportation stakeholders gain financially from heeding AB 617 and implementing clean air measures in disadvantaged communities. According to the State of Sustainable Fleets 2022 report, fleets operating with alternative fuels like propane report the vehicles perform equal or better than their diesel counterparts. Of surveyed early adopter fleets operating medium- and heavy-duty propane trucks vehicles, 86% report lower fuel cost and 76% report lower maintenance cost.

AB 617 emphasizes clean transportation as a pathway to actualize this equitable clean air movement. Older trucks, for example, must be replaced by newer technologies to reduce air pollution in communities statewide. In Southern California, the South Coast AQMD supports the development of emission reduction strategies with a built-in community-driven process. Residents and businesses are involved in monitoring air quality and working with their local air district to develop new regulations.

Southern California is home to some of the poorest air quality in the country, but clean transportation professionals can leverage the South Coast AQMD’s digital tools to lead their transformative infrastructure and environmental justice efforts. South Coast AQMD’s AB 617 communities include populations across Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernadino counties. Maps of disadvantaged communities and South Coast AQMD’s digital tools and programs can help clean transportation stakeholders prioritize disadvantaged communities in their projects like alternative fuel station installations:

  • The AB 617 Air Monitoring Search Tool offers trucking leaders real-time data, data summaries, reports, and Community Air Monitoring Plans. Clean transportation leaders can align with South Coast AQMD to strategically develop the market.
  • The Clean Fuels Program has annual summaries of clean energy progress as well as prospective funding opportunities for clean transportation stakeholders upcoming for the following year.
  • The Incentives Programs fund clean energy solutions. The agency updates the webpage with funding opportunities in real-time. Programs tailored for clean transportation firms are available.
  • The Lower-Emission School Bus Program which supports the movement from smog-producing, carcinogenic diesel engines to cleaner, alternative fuels. Image: CARB

Going forward, clean transportation stakeholders must keep disadvantaged communities top of mind. California has long led the nation in advancing the clean transportation revolution while considering the needs of disadvantaged communities. The Biden Administration’s policies provide strong policy tailwinds which augment state and local laws to incentivize a triple bottom line approach to drive clean transportation forward without leaving environmental justice behind. Billions of dollars in incentives are available to those who consider the needs of disadvantaged communities.

To be sure, the regulatory landscape is nuanced with federal, state, and local considerations. Clean transportation stakeholders operating in California must adhere to policies like the Justice40 Initiative and AB 617 law to be successful. The South Coast AQMD’s maps, tools, and programs are a helpful way to start. Cleaning the environment and standing up for disadvantaged communities, the often overlooked segment of our society, is a major win-win. Is your firm, agency, or organization looking to grow its triple bottom-line? GNA, North America’s leading clean transportation and energy consultants, is here to help. Reach out if you would like to strategize around environmental justice and clean transportation. Here’s to a 2023 filled with clean technologies, inclusive policies, and triple-bottom line success.