Landmark California program could have huge emissions-reductions impact

In the United States, transportation accounts for about 28 percent of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, GHG emissions are estimated to be as high as 40 percent. Compared to other sectors, emissions from transportation have been increasing more rapidly.

“In fact, between 1990 and 2006, growth in U.S. transportation GHG emissions represented almost one-half (47 percent) of the increase in total U.S. GHGs,” reports the Moving Cooler Steering Committee (a multi-agency consortium) in Moving Cooler: An Analysis of Transportation Strategies for Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions, a July 2009 study prepared by Cambridge Systematics, Inc.

Apart from destructive greenhouse gases, there are particulates (soot), sulfur- and nitrogen oxides and other ozone- or smog-forming pollutants sourced from transportation to deal with. And in California’s Central Valley, of that mix, according to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, motor vehicles account for 57 percent. The Valley is one of this country’s more notorious dirty airsheds.

As air pollution knows no boundaries, the extent of the problem is far-reaching. And just how widespread and dangerous is pollution?

According to the American Lung Association, “More than 40 percent of people in the United States live in areas where air pollution continues to threaten their health. That means more than 127 million people are living in counties with dangerous levels of either ozone or particle pollution that can cause wheezing and coughing, asthma attacks, heart attacks, and premature death. Those at greatest risk from air pollution include infants, children, older adults, anyone with lung diseases like asthma, people with heart disease or diabetes, people with low incomes and anyone who works or exercises outdoors.”

With this in mind, in California in 15 metro regions, updated land use policies and practices with the express purpose of reducing greenhouse gases are about to go into effect, mostly due to the passage of California Senate Bill 375 (the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008). Meanwhile, three groundbreaking Sustainable Communities Strategies (SCS) initiatives, in southern California, Sacramento and San Diego, have already been approved. And as pointed out by Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) staffer Kaid Benfield in the organization’s Switchboard blogpost: “SoCal’s new sustainability strategy is impressive step forward,” the Southern California Association of Governments in April 2012 unanimously adopted its SCS which extends to 2037.

Meanwhile, back to the Moving Cooler study, it goes on to indicate that the interaction of four factors are responsible for the presence of transportation-sourced GHGs which are identified as: efficiency of the motor vehicle fuel itself, content of carbon produced by ignited fuel, distance vehicles travel and motor vehicle operational efficiency during travel.

Among effective strategies identified to mitigate deficiencies directly linked to the production of greenhouse gas and other emissions are: improve both motor vehicle and fuel efficiency, decrease the production of carbon coming from ignited fuels, reduce the number of vehicle travel miles and improve the transportation network.

So Cal at a crossroads

According to Benfield, the six counties of Imperial, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura and home to some 18 million residents in 191 cities, is dispersed over an area totaling 38,000 square miles. Moreover, the INRIX transportation analysis firm, incidentally, has designated the area as number one in the nation for traffic congestion and home to five of the ten most congested freeways in the United States.

The NRDC staffer, meanwhile, adds: “Perhaps unsurprisingly, the region’s air quality is notorious: it is the worst in the country for pollution by ozone smog, which can impair breathing function, according to the American Lung Association. It is the second worst for particle pollution, which causes heart and lung disease and premature death. In addition, two southern California counties – Los Angeles and Orange – are among the nation’s 20 riskiest for developing cancer from breathing toxic air pollution, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.”

Moreover, “The region is fifth worst for per capita carbon emissions from transportation (though its mild climate and resulting low residential energy demands help keep overall emissions relatively low),” Benfield notes.

Relief on the way?

Significantly reducing greenhouse gas, particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, ozone and other polluting emissions in America might seem daunting. Understanding this, is the landmark and targeted approach California is taking with implementation of the statewide Sustainable Communities Strategies initiative what the doctor ordered?

As it relates, “The SoCal strategy aggressively invests in public transit to serve both current residents and four million new ones, along with 4.2 million new jobs, 87 percent of which would be within a half-mile’s walk of transit service,” insists Benfield only this time in the NRDC Switchboard blogpost: “How California is planning growth for a prosperous economy and clean environment,” and adds, “The new strategy is also projected to reduce pollution-caused respiratory problems by 24 percent, resulting in $1.5 billion per year in health care savings, and to save over 400 square miles of farmland and other open space from development.”

In that the Southern California, Sacramento and San Diego regions have taken the lead, if the remaining 15 metro regions follow suit and implement plans and policies similar to those already approved, with regard to significantly reducing the production of greenhouse gas and other emissions, some real headway could be made.

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