Our economy depends on trucks, trains and ships powered primarily by diesel fuel to move our food, household goods and other commodities in a constant flow throughout California. Unfortunately, freight commerce takes a toll on our health and environment when heavy-duty engines leave noxious fumes in their wake.
Low-income communities disproportionately experience the health impacts of industrial freight activity by being forced to breathe diesel exhaust on a daily basis in their own neighborhoods. For instance, the San Joaquin Valley is being inundated with distribution centers that promise jobs but also add pollution to an area known nationwide for having some of the poorest air quality in the United States.
Continuing to rely almost exclusively on oil-fueled freight transportation means a future with elevated risks of respiratory diseases like asthma, developmental impacts for children, premature deaths and the dangerous consequences of climate change.
We don't have to sacrifice economic success to achieve air quality, health and climate benefits. Technologies that dramatically reduce pollution and improve efficiency present an opportunity to transform today's conventional freight vehicles into a low-carbon transportation system that cleans our air and reduces our oil consumption.
California has a proven track record for taking innovative actions to curtail air pollution, improve public health and fight climate change. That same vision is necessary now to begin a transition to a more efficient freight system, one that relies on cleaner alternatives to our current diesel-powered transportation and more effectively moves the goods we use every day. The freight sector is California's largest single source of ozone-causing nitrogen oxide emissions and diesel particulate pollution. Movement of freight is also a major contributor to climate change, including emissions of carbon dioxide and black carbon.
While California has adopted policies that have dramatically reduced pollution from cars, trucks and other sources over the last several decades, the science assessing the impacts of air pollution on public health has also advanced. The air across California is cleaner than it once was, but there are still too many communities where it is unhealthy. As a result, existing state policies - particularly for freight transportation - are insufficient to meet upcoming federal air-quality deadlines. At the same time, global-warming emissions from freight vehicles are expected to grow in the coming decades unless we take stronger action.
Current standards that require upgrading engines and installing exhaust filters on older diesel-powered trucks are providing significant reductions in particulate matter and smog-forming nitrogen oxides, and are a necessary step.
But these actions are only beginning to address the problem. An analysis by state and regional air-quality officials shows that we need a nearly 90 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions in some parts of the state to reach air-quality standards over the next two decades.
A report to be released Tuesday and commissioned by the California Cleaner Freight Coalition, "Moving California Forward: Zero and Low-Emissions Freight Pathways," identifies cleaner freight alternatives that can reduce emissions well beyond today's cleanest diesel and natural gas trucks. The study finds that strategies such as powering short-haul trucks with clean electricity could simultaneously benefit regional air quality and dramatically reduce climate-change emissions, while eliminating tailpipe emissions in communities most affected by truck traffic. For regional trips, moving goods by train and ship using the cleanest engine technologies can reduce emissions compared to today's cleanest diesel trucks, though any move toward greater rail or ship use must ensure the health of communities surrounding railyards and ports.
The California Air Resources Board has been considering undertaking a Sustainable Freight Transport Initiative for the past year. Now is the time for action. California needs a long-term plan to transform how we move essential goods around the Golden State. Because infrastructure built in the near future on highways, railyards and port terminals will last for decades, it is critical to plan now for deploying cleaner conventional and advanced technologies in the freight sector. A robust plan that identifies key freight strategies for meeting state public health and climate goals will help guide technology and infrastructure investments over the coming decades.
Modernizing California's pollution-intensive freight-transportation system will not happen overnight. But it is a challenge worth facing to provide clean air to breathe, protect the health of all communities, meet California's climate goals, and keep the state's economy strong. Let's get moving.
Don Anair is research and deputy director of the Clean Vehicles Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Emiliano Mataka is secretary for Valley Improvement Projects, Modesto.