State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Even During Lockdown, California Moves to Decarbonize Trucking

America’s current catastrophes of disease, racist policing and economic disorder dominate our lives and politics, but crisis creates opportunity and the optimist in me sees signs of hope. The protests against racism are supported by most Americans who have been horrified by the irrefutable images of racist policing and according to polling data, support change. They do not think that those protesting systemic racism are anti-American terrorists. The rapid spread of COVID-19 in Florida, Arizona and Texas has made clear that even “red states” will require strong government action to protect its public from this pandemic. Throughout America, the threat of future pandemics has placed the idea of a more aggressive and well-resourced system of public health on the political agenda. The status of environmental protection on the political agenda is less clear, since the Trump Administration has used the pandemic as yet another excuse to ignore environmental rules, and here in New York City the DeBlasio Administration ended the curbside pick-up of organic waste. Both the president and the mayor are willing to defer our environmental well-being. But fortunately, we have California’s government stepping up and refusing to relax its effort to combat global warming and air pollution.

California acted to decarbonize trucking in the face of determined industry lobbying. As reported by Hiroko Tabuchi in the New York Times on June 25:

“Rebuffing strong opposition from industry, California on Thursday adopted a landmark rule requiring more than half of all trucks sold in the state to be zero-emissions by 2035, a move that is expected to improve local air quality, rein in greenhouse gas emissions and sharply curtail the state’s dependence on oil…Oil companies, together with farming and other industries, opposed the measure, calling it unrealistic, expensive and an example of regulatory overreach. Truck and engine manufacturers also opposed the rule, and began a last-ditch effort in March to delay it, saying companies were already suffering from the effects of the Covid-19 crisis. But California, which two years ago set an ambitious target of reducing emissions of planet-warming gases by 40 percent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, held firm. The state’s clean air regulator, the California Air Resources Board, voted unanimously in favor of the rule at a meeting on Thursday.”

Truck traffic is growing in the e-commerce era and not only are greenhouse gasses emitted by diesel-powered trucks, but a variety of air pollutants are released that can endanger human health. According to Tabuchi:

Transportation makes up 40 percent of California’s greenhouse gas emissions, and is a major contributor to smog-causing nitrogen oxides and diesel particulate matter pollution, which are linked to health problems including respiratory conditions. Of those transportation sector emissions, as much as 70 percent of smog-causing pollution and 80 percent of particulate matter are from diesel trucks, even though they make up just 7 percent of the 30 million vehicles registered in California.”

Anti-regulatory ideology reflexively considers all rules harmful to business. As I have noted on many occasions, on a broad scale, regulation tends to benefit business. Rules provide boundaries for competition — they do not eliminate competitors. Environmental rules (like most regulations) are implemented gradually and can be adjusted to meet real-world operational issues. Moreover, they provide incentives for innovation. We already know that the electric vehicle is more reliable than the internal combustion engine. It has fewer moving parts and requires less maintenance. In the long run, that will make trucking more efficient and less expensive. As California continues its rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, the cost of electricity will stabilize and eventually be reduced. Lower energy and trucking costs will make California’s economy more efficient and provide benefits to business owners and customers. A modern, 21st-century energy and transportation system can help California’s economy grow in the decades that follow the COVID-19 recession.

There is some question about how quickly the truck market in California will be able to implement the new requirements, and I suspect that market conditions will result in modifications to the rules over the next several years. Russ Mitchell, writing in the Los Angeles Times provided some insight into these market issues. According to Mitchell:

“Medium-duty electric trucks — mainly large vans and box trucks with no semi-trailer — are expected to succeed faster than electric semi trucks because range requirements for their hauling jobs are lower and they can be charged at a depot overnight. Many new players compete in this segment, including Rivian and Chanje. Calstart, a clean transportation industry group, said 169 different zero-emission commercial models will be available by the end of the year, compared with 95 in 2019. Amazon has invested in Michigan-based Rivian and said it plans to buy 100,000 electric delivery vans from the company over the next several years. All major truck manufacturers are developing electric trucks, powered either by batteries or by hydrogen electric fuel cells.”

Business lobbyists make their money fighting government regulations, but truck manufacturers make their money selling trucks. A government requirement that trucks be modernized creates a market for new and innovative trucks. This requires ingenuity and investment, but it could result in increased market share and profit for the company that builds the best electric trucks. Carefully administered and reasonably paced regulation can stimulate innovation. When regulators find companies willing to make a good faith effort to comply with rules, they should adjust enforcement and work with companies as partners rather than adversaries.

What is inspiring and impressive about California at this moment is that they are not accepting the argument that the way to deal with the economic stress of COVID-19 is to give up on environmental rules and let businesses do whatever they want. All organizations are under extraordinary stress seeking to adapt to the operational requirements of functioning during a global pandemic. But policies based on sound science and the public interest fit clearly into the mindset that COVID-19 inspires. At the university where I work, we are trying to figure out how to return to campus without increasing the risk of contamination. Would this be the right moment for universities to throw out rules on occupational health and safety or disability access? Quite the opposite. Wouldn’t it be a shame to prevent COVID-19 contamination, only to have a boiler explode or a chemical tank leak?

This is a moment to let the same science that has developed our technologies be encouraged to reduce the harmful impacts of technologies. We need to control greenhouse gasses, toxic pollutants, and dangerous viruses that can damage our health and our way of life. We have unleashed human technology on the planet for both good and evil. Inexpensive jet travel has helped create global markets, international community and understanding, but it has also allowed COVID-19 to rapidly infect the world. No one questions the need to develop a vaccine to prevent this disease or a treatment to help cure it. COVID-19 is a fact. Fossil fuels pollute our air and warm our planet. That too is a fact. No one should question the need to develop technologies that allow us to power our economy without damaging our planet.

California’s Air Resource Board and governor deserve enormous credit for moving ahead even in the face of the worsening pandemic. It demonstrates leadership, vision and persistence. Qualities that are more important in bad times than good times.

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