In summary

The California Air Resources Board will vote on regulations to phase out diesel-fueled units that would be replaced by zero emission units.

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By Yasmine Agelidis, Special to CalMatters

Yasmine Agelidis is an attorney on Earthjustice’s Right to Zero campaign.

I scream, you scream, we all scream for – particulate matter, arsenic, benzene and nitrogen oxides? 

That’s probably not what you had in mind when you ordered that two-scoop cone topped with sprinkles, but right now that’s what you get. 

Fortunately, change may be coming thanks to new regulations being considered by the California Air Resources Board, regulations strongly supported by Earthjustice and a large coalition of labor, community and environmental justice organizations. 

We’ve come to take it for granted that grocery store shelves brim with refrigerated products – milk, ice cream, frozen pizza, poultry and more – and that medicines that need refrigeration arrive at hospitals and clinics safely every day. But most of us don’t think about the mechanics of how those products stay cold and safe while traveling thousands of miles. 

Mostly it happens via antiquated diesel technology that fouls the air, damages community health and threatens our climate. The diesel-fueled Transport Refrigeration Units, or TRUs, that keep these products cold in trucks, rail cars and shipping containers represent a significant source of both greenhouse gases and lung-damaging pollution.

Transport Refrigeration Units – which may run for hours when the vehicles they’re on are stationary or waiting to unload – contribute more than 12 tons per day of harmful nitrogen oxide and nearly half a ton of lung-damaging fine particulates every day in California. 

These emissions tend to be concentrated near distribution centers and mega warehouses. And not surprisingly, those facilities are often located near communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, which bear the brunt of their pollution. Too many of these communities breathe some of the nation’s dirtiest air and have come to be known as “diesel death zones.” 

But we have the technology now to start making diesel death zones a relic of the past. In fact,  zero emission big rig Transport Refrigeration Units already exist today. Take, for example, the solar-electric unit that made a successful 2,400 mile test run from Phoenix to Orlando in 2019. 

The California Air Resources Board is now looking to give this growing industry – and all of our lungs –  a boost with new rules that will begin phasing out polluting truck Transport Refrigeration Units, a critical part of the industry. The standards, which will be voted on Feb. 24 and go into effect at the end of this year, would cut toxic diesel and climate pollution. Among other things, owners of truck Transport Refrigeration Units will need to replace at least 15% of their old, dirty fleet each year with zero emissions units. This means all truck TRUs in California will be emissions-free by the end of 2029. 

Crucially, the agency has built into its proposal a solid set of monitoring and enforcement mechanisms to ensure that the regulations get implemented. A second set of rules, to be voted on in 2024, would similarly shift other types of Transport Refrigeration Units, including those in rail cars and domestic shipping containers. 

These new regulations represent historic progress. This will be the first time California has required truck fleet operators to shift entirely to zero emissions, setting a national precedent other states can and should follow. And that, in turn, will spur the industry to develop more pollution-free Transport Refrigeration Units, increasing the choices available to companies shipping refrigerated goods.  

Make no mistake, electrifying Transport Refrigeration Units will save lives. The Air Resources Board’s staff estimates the proposed regulation will save about 177 lives over the next decade, and save Californians $1.75 billion in avoided premature deaths and health care costs. It will also eliminate 1,258 tons of dangerous fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, 3,515 tons of nitrogen oxide and 1.42 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions over the next 12 years.

Electrifying the ways we move cold foods is a big step in cleaning California’s air and reducing our state’s contribution to the climate crisis. When we say we need to electrify everything that moves, we truly mean everything – even the cold trucks delivering ice cream and fish sticks.

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