On August 2nd, the Trump Administration announced its plan to roll back regulations on emissions standards for cars. The move would relax fuel efficiency requirements for automakers, allowing cars to burn more gallons of gas per mile and release more pollution into the air than what would have otherwise occurred under Obama Administration rules. If successful, the proposed rollback would have special significance for California. Home to some of the most polluted regions in the United States, California has a unique relationship with air pollution. Its history of air pollution challenges, and its trajectory of regulatory progress and innovation, is critically threatened by Trump’s proposal, which would set California several steps back on its path to clean air.
California has grappled with air pollution for more than a century. Smoke and fumes from fledgling industries darkened the skies as far back as the early 1900s. During World War II, the question of air quality gained urgency when ramped-up industrial processes and a rapidly expanding motor fleet led to severe pollution that irritated residents’ lungs and limited their visibility. In response to the growing problem, the LA County Board of Supervisors established an Air Pollution Control District (APCD) in 1948, the first air pollution control program in the nation. The Los Angeles APCD eventually combined with the Orange County APCD, the Riverside APCD, and the San Bernardino APCD to form the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) in 1976.
In 1967, the Bureau of Air Sanitation and the California Motor Vehicle Pollution Control board merged to form the California Air Resources Board (CARB). CARB’s first board chair, Dr. Arie Haagen-Smit, was a researcher at Caltech. He was inspired to apply his training as a biochemist to the eye irritation, plant damage, odor, and haze experienced in Pasadena and the greater Los Angeles region, ultimately establishing the science of air pollution control. Originally tasked with regulating emissions from motor vehicles, CARB is now responsible for overseeing a wide range of air quality issues, including monitoring and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Today, CARB is leading the charge to retain California’s power to set its own fuel efficiency standards in the face of the Trump Administration’s proposed rollback. All of that important history started right here in Los Angeles.
The formation of these pioneering regulatory bodies set the stage for advances in policy, science, technology, and public engagement that have enabled huge strides towards clearing the air in our state and across the country. Air pollution permits for major industrial polluters, bans on backyard incinerators, tailpipe emissions standards, the elimination of lead from gasoline, and many other historic achievements have all contributed towards the cleaner, healthier air we breathe today, even as our population grows and more cars drive on our roads than ever before. California continues to lead the way with innovative clean air strategies such as reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, planning for dense and transit-oriented housing developments, and building up active transportation infrastructure.
Yet advances in air quality have not benefited all residents of California equally. The recent report A Portrait of Los Angeles County, which ranks the overall wellbeing of communities in the county from 0 to 10 using a score called the Human Development (HD) index, gives a poignant example. According to the report, over two thirds of Los Angeles communities with an HD Index score of less than 4 are clustered along heavily polluted Interstate 710, a major traffic artery that carries tens of thousands of diesel trucks from the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach each day. These communities, which are majority Latino and black, also have low personal earnings, educational attainment, and life expectancies when compared to countywide averages. Environmental justice advocacy groups are leading the working to bring awareness to the ways air pollution contributes to and compounds these types of disparities, and to offer strategies for reducing the disproportionate impacts of air pollution on their communities.
Each year, there are 19,000 premature deaths related to poor air quality in California, with the heaviest burden born by low income communities and communities of color. Emissions from vehicles, industry, and even household sources contribute to missed school and work days, decreased lung capacity and increased incidence of asthma in children, and billions of dollars in economic losses from health complications such as cancer, heart disease, and lung disease each year. In addition to having direct health impacts, air pollution also drives climate change, a serious health and safety threat our state faces. It’s clear that the Trump Administration’s proposed regulation rollback is a big step in the wrong direction. California can’t afford to go backward. We must continue moving forward towards a cleaner, healthier, and more sustainable future.
Across our state, we still have work to do to ensure clean, safe air today and for future generations of Californians, and everyone has a role to play. We’ll be focusing on climate action and air quality as we draft ‘Our County,’ the region’s first countywide sustainability plan. We’ve been gathering input from stakeholders at the ‘Our County’ workshops related to climate and public health and that input will shape what we pursue in the sustainability plan, which guide our actions to keep fighting for clean air, regardless of the federal rebuke of our state and local goals.
To get involved in opposing the federal rollback, take part in campaigns for written public comments and speak out at public hearings. Join other Californians across the state by celebrating California Clean Air Day on October 3 and taking the Clean Air Pledge. And, support clean air through everyday actions such as walking, biking, carpooling, or taking transit to work and conserving electricity for heating and cooling. Together, we can honor our state’s clean air legacy and clear the air in California.
Rebecca Ferdman, Los Angeles County Chief Sustainability Office