In summary

The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted the economy and led to lower vehicle emissions, which begs the question: What if a robust economy didn’t have to come at the cost of cleaner air?

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By Mike Gatto, Special to CalMatters

Mike Gatto is a former California State Assemblymember,

Angelenos are collectively amazed with our new coastal vistas — Catalina Island to the south and Point Dume to the north. My friends in Northern California report that they can even see the Point Reyes Peninsula from San Francisco’s coastline.

And while there’s no silver lining that could make the COVID-19 pandemic anything but a global nightmare, in a better world, I could get used to this beauty, along with spontaneous mid-morning games of backyard chase with my kids. 

Yet, reality kicks in every day in the news: Experts say this dip in emissions that’s providing unprecedented views is temporary. What’s worse, scientists worry that dealing with the coronavirus will distract regulators from their long-term, greenhouse-gas reduction goals. “We have the economy to focus on,” they’ll say; clean air is off our radars.

But what if the “economy vs. environment” debate is a fallacy? What if a robust economy didn’t have to come at the cost of cleaner air? Can we take this snapshot in time — these clear views — and preserve them for tomorrow, and for next year, and even for our children’s children? 

If history is any lesson, the answer is probably not — unless we take decisive action now. As a recent Los Angeles Times article notes, these temporary dips caused by economic downturns, including the 2008 global financial crisis and the oil shocks of the 1970s, are just that: temporary.  Meaning that pollution comes roaring back when industry comes back. But it doesn’t have to be that way. 

My hope is that even before life gets back to “normal,” all of us will ask ourselves and our policymakers how we can keep cleaner air. 

We’ve witnessed the steady rise of electric vehicle sales, and that upward trend is sure to continue. However, experts tell us that it may take decades for electrics to replace the millions of light-duty cars and trucks on our roads — and even longer to realize universal access to affordable, zero-emission vehicles and charging stations for all Californians.

Clean air shouldn’t have to take a once-a-century pandemic to achieve. California can do more to tackle the environmental toll from existing vehicles today. 

For example, data from the California Air Resources Board show that the renewable motor fuels available to California drivers get cleaner each year thanks to the use of low carbon fuels. 

Currently, gasoline is blended with 10% renewable ethanol, but California is exploring wider adoption of higher biofuel blends like E15, which many states and countries have already embraced. With more renewable fuel in the tank, we could not only displace more petroleum, but also reduce consumption of toxic fuel additives linked to cancer and smog. 

Another worthwhile opportunity exists among heavy trucks and equipment. Diesel particulate matter is a leading cause of polluted air, particularly harming the health of disadvantaged residents living near ports, rail yards, warehouses and freeways. Diesel-fueled trucks are responsible for almost one third of California’s annual emissions of nitrogen oxide emissions, a key ingredient in smog. The same trucks emit more particulate matter pollution than all the state’s power plants combined. Renewable biodiesel could play a much greater role in reducing those emissions.

California has long been the hotbed of independent thinking and groundbreaking technologies that become global trends. That’s especially true when it comes to cleaning up the transportation sector, America’s top source of greenhouse gas emissions. Continued progress will play a vital role in protecting the health of California families, especially minority and low-income communities, where hazardous air quality has been shown to cause more premature deaths, asthma and other illnesses. 

Are Californians the crucible that can transform cutting-edge ideas into global phenomena? Is this our moment in time? Let’s not wait for the pain and loss of another global pandemic to stand up and say, now is the time. Let’s keep our eye on the prize. Whether it’s Point Dume or Point Reyes, it’s a worthy goal.


Mike Gatto is a former California State Assemblymember,

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