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A New Phase in California's War on Dirty Air

Its ports and freight system account for a significant portion of its air pollution. Will aggressive new state and regional efforts once again serve as a model for the nation?

Los Angeles skyline filled with smog and palm trees
A fog-filled Los Angeles skyline, which has some of California's worst air quality.
California has a long history of being aggressive about improving air quality, and for good reason. Researchers from MIT released data in 2013 documenting that California has the nation's worst health impacts from air pollution, accounting each year for about 21,000 of the country's 200,000 early deaths attributable to dirty air. Of course, air pollution affects millions more in other ways, resulting in emergency department visits for cardiovascular and respiratory problems as well as restricted activity days and time lost from work and school.

And it would appear that, much like lead contamination, there are no safe levels of air pollution. A Harvard University research team's study published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine found significant evidence of adverse effects related to exposure to particulate matter and ozone at concentrations below current national standards.

How much more aggressive does California need to be? Clearly, it has a way to go. Despite decades-long regulatory efforts that often have served as a model for other states and the nation, California still has seven of the nation's 10 most-polluted metropolitan areas and 11 of the worst 25 cities, according to the American Lung Association's 2017 State of the Air report.

Southern California has the state's worst air quality, and the city-owned ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are the region's largest source of smog-forming air pollution. Although the ports have been operating for more than a decade under a joint Clean Air Action Plan, progress hasn't been adequate to mitigate the pollution caused by the thousands of ships that pass through the port every year as well as locomotives and cargo handling equipment operating there.

Efforts to tackle the ports' emissions are ratcheting up significantly under an agreement signed in June by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia. Their new Clean Air Action Plan establishes far-reaching goals to "advance clean technologies and other efforts to move toward the goal of zero emissions" with specific targets of zero-emission cargo handling equipment by 2030 and zero emission trucks by 2035.

It's a gargantuan undertaking that seems likely to have impacts far beyond California: Together, these two ports handle some 37 percent of all imports into the country arriving in containers. "Our ports are the engines that power our economy," Garcetti said. "They must also be the forces that drive our region toward a greener, more sustainable future."

The L.A and Long Beach efforts fall within the scope of the broader statewide 2016 California Sustainable Freight Action Plan to modernize the state's freight transport system while reducing pollution. California's huge freight system is responsible for one-third of the state's economic product and jobs: Freight-dependent industries accounted for over $740 billion in gross domestic product and more than 5 million jobs in 2014. Reducing carbon dioxide and other emissions in this sector is critical to meeting the state's new, aggressive targets for lowering greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 to combat climate change.

Efforts to combat climate change and reduce air pollution are intertwined, of course. And, as Time magazine's Justin Worland recently pointed out, "no place in the country stands to benefit more than California" from targeting sources of emissions such as power plants, factories and vehicles. Whether California's new state and regional efforts will have an impact beyond its borders remains to be seen, but if history is a guide the odds are good that that they will.

Associate director of the Governing Institute and a co-founder of Governing's parent organization, e.Republic
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