Newly elected California Governor Gavin Newsom has a vision to eradicate diesel pollution in the state by 2030. The initiative is taking shape in a legislative proposal called Vision 2020, a clean air plan put forth by MoveLA, a consortium of environmental, labor, and business groups focused on transportation issues in California.
The proposal calls for a half cent sales tax increase in Southern California counties to pay for clean infrastructure improvements and incentives to accelerate the deployment of zero- and near-zero emissions light-, medium-, and heavy-duty vehicles in the state.
Along with other transportation issues, the plan was presented and discussed on March 1 during MoveLA’s “Transportation Conversation.” Part of the title of a panel discussion made the mission clear: “Dump Diesel.”
This discussion is one of many taking place globally around clean transportation in urban environments.
At least 19 cities — including Paris, London, Madrid, Athens, Mexico City, Copenhagen, and Rome — have called for bans on diesel, and in some cases gasoline vehicles as well, by 2025 or 2030. Indeed entire countries, including China, India, France, Israel, and the U.K., have enacted laws that ban gasoline and diesel vehicle sales in the 2025 to 2040 timeframe.
It’s safe to say that the U.S. won’t ban diesel vehicles in our lifetimes. But many cities, including Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle, have at least started conversations on creating regulations to severely curtail diesel emissions in those cities.
The panel discussions at the MoveLA meeting, which included stakeholders across the business and environmental spectrum, boiled down the issues into a microcosm.
Business group representatives pointed out that diesel trucks are much cleaner than they were 10 years ago. They said the business community supports solutions that promote the health of all residents but questioned another sales tax. “The devil’s in the details,” they said.
Environmental and community advocates stressed the need to address disproportionate impacts to disadvantaged communities and to enact “enforceable regulations, not just incentives.”
In this forum, and in similar ones around the world, the plan isn’t for incremental improvements but radical change.
The health risks posed by diesel are well documented. In the Los Angeles basin, 90% of harmful nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions comes from transportation and 80% of that is from heavy-duty vehicles, mostly powered by diesel. Only 2% of those vehicles — medium- and heavy-duty trucks — make up 40% of NOx emissions.
If only this radical change could be produced with trucks and technologies fleets that are widely available and remotely cost efficient.
Medium- and heavy-duty electric or hydrogen fuel-cell trucks might be a hot topic at truck trade shows, but it’ll take at least 10 years before they’re deployed in numbers to positively affect the environment.
Near-zero emissions vehicles, meanwhile, are coming to market sooner. They’re a worthy compromise, as one MoveLA panelist put it, on this path to massive emissions reductions. Cummins Westport’s near zero NOx natural gas engines are available and certified by CARB.
But those engines are still being produced in small numbers compared to overall sales and their incremental cost is simply not feasible for the vast majority of fleets.
To achieve the desired near-zero emissions results, these engines need to run on renewable natural gas (RNG), which is being fed into natural gas pipelines — at least right now — in such small quantities that the overall environmental impact is minimal.
California has the most available grant money of any state to implement green technologies, but will it be enough for the massive reductions required? Hopefully other technologies such as propane and compressed natural gas (CNG) that are available right now and go a long way to reduce NOx and greenhouse gas emissions, are included and promoted in the funding.
Still, others cling to the zero-emissions Valhalla. One advocate wanted to make sure that any plan put forth avoids “lining the pockets of industry,” as if fleet owners would somehow make a profit from grant funding.
This way of thinking speaks to a growing disconnect between the noble and necessary plans to clean our environment versus the harsh reality that the technologies to get there are not yet market ready.
Vision 2020 has many rounds of vetting before landing in the 2020 ballot box. It includes incentives to accelerate deployment of zero- and near-zero emissions vehicles. If it also includes enforceable regulations for non-compliance, fleets will be walking a tight rope to stay compliant and within budget.
Diesel may not be the long-term future for transportation. Let’s hope regulators can separate the chatter and promise of zero-emissions vehicles with what’s available and feasible for fleets to implement to clean up our environment.