California dreams

By 2024, vehicles purchased for transport use in California will have to start transitioning to zero-emissions. It is the first of various regulations set to unfold over the next 20 years, pitting industry against policy. Are these draconian environmental laws out to unfairly punish transport, or is it simply the way of the world today?

California has an enormous role in international trade. It also has a big air pollution problem. These two facts have come to a head with politicians and environmental bodies determined to deal with this environmental crisis. But the transport industry is feeling maligned and say the approach is irresponsible, will drive businesses into bankruptcy and destroy livelihoods.

In April this year, California’s air regulator, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) passed a new law that demands what some see as a major upheaval to the supply chain – The Advanced Clean Fleet rules.

From 2024, any trucking or shipping company that purchases a new truck is required to buy a model powered by batteries or hydrogen fuel cells. By 2035, all large trucks that move goods between ports, rail yards and distribution centres, must be a zero-emission vehicle, due to the impact truck traffic has on residents living near heavily trafficked corridors.

It is all part of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s plan to fully transition all trucks in the state to zero emissions by 2045. And they aren’t just picking on trucks. California wants to ban the sale of petrol-powered cars by 2035 as well – a nationwide first. It’s all part of a lofty goal to reduce its pollution by 85 per cent by 2045.

In many ways, these decisions shouldn’t be surprising. California has long been at the forefront of environmental protection. It was where ‘Earth Day’ – a day to consider the world’s environment and support laws to protect it – was created in the 1960s. In the 1970s, California passed a number of landmark environmental laws, including the California Clean Air Act and the California Coastal Act. It also takes its civic duty seriously, especially considering it has the world’s fifth largest economy.

Despite these decades of effort from both government and grassroot organisations, California appears to be losing its air pollution battle.

Air quality conundrum
According to data from the Environmental Protection Agency and the American Lung Association, California has six out of 10 of the most polluted cities in the US. These include the top four – Los Angeles, Bakersfield, Fresno and Visalia.

CARB’s air monitoring data shows that more than 90 per cent of Californians breathe unhealthy levels of one or more air pollutants during some part of the year.

While there are a variety of arguable reasons for this including its geography, weather patterns and climate, there is little question that trucks are the largest single source of vehicle air pollution in the state. They are responsible for more than 35 per cent of the state’s transportation-generated nitrogen oxide emissions and a quarter of the state’s on-road greenhouse gas emissions, despite only representing six per cent of vehicles on California’s roads.

CARB says, that over time, the Advanced Clean Fleet Rule will generate $26.6 billion USD in health savings from reduced asthma attacks and respiratory illness.

Where trucking is king
Tens of millions of goods travel through the Golden State, with the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long beach, handling 31 per cent of all American container based imports and exports.

A large portion of trucking companies in California are either small or owner-operators. In fact, small business owners transport nearly a third of the state’s containerised goods and they say they can’t afford the investment to upgrade their vehicles.

Even with generous state and federal funding and tax credits for owners, that can cut the cost of expensive battery-powered or hydrogen trucks in half, truckers say it’s still a financial stretch.

The American Trucking Association (ATA) has been one of the most outspoken critics of the Advanced Clean Fleets regulation, saying it has unrealistic targets, unachievable timelines and ignores the fact that clean trucks are early-stage technology and the infrastructure to support them isn’t there.

“Fleets are just beginning to understand what it takes to successfully operate these trucks,” ATA President and CEO, Chris Spear, said in a statement. “What they have learned so far is the vehicles are significantly more expensive, charging and refuelling infrastructure is non-existent and zero-emission vehicles are not necessarily a one-for-one replacement—meaning more trucks will be needed on California roads to move the same amount of freight.”

The Harbor Trucking Association, which represents freight industry companies working out of West Coast ports, says it’s all for transforming the transport industry to zero emission, but the deadline simply won’t work.

“If we want to see sustainable emission reductions that are meant to protect the health of local communities, we will need a more targeted approach that truly takes into account the woeful lack of fuelling infrastructure for heavy duty zero-emission vehicles, along with the technical limitations of available equipment,” said Matt Schrap, CEO of the Harbor Trucking Association.

Despite the push back, the plan does have its supporters including other American states, thirteen of which have pledged to match or consider matching California’s clean truck policies.

Is there a plan?
There are legitimate questions surrounding how the plan will all roll out. Truckers are concerned about both the cost and lack of infrastructure and, even if there are enough charging stations for everyone, experts are questioning whether the electricity grid will be able to support the increase demand.

The state, for its part, plans to spend nearly US$3 billion between 2021 and 2025 for zero-emission truck incentives and fuelling infrastructure as part of a US$9 billion zero-emissions vehicle package agreed to by Governor Gavin Newsom and the state legislature in 2021.

CARB Chair, Liane Randolph, says the Advanced Clean Fleet rule is innovative and reasonable and what’s more, it will provide zero emission manufacturers and fuelling providers the assurance that there will be a market and demand for their products.

“We have the technology available to start working toward a zero-emission future now,” she said in a statement.

CARB argues that the rules are flexible enough to take into consideration available technology. For example, it says, yard trucks must transition by 2035, work trucks and day cab tractors must be zero-emission by 2039 and sleeper cab tractors and speciality vehicles must be zero-emission by 2042. The rule also allows fleet owners to receive exemptions based on available technology.

An analysis of the sales and purchase requirements estimates that about 1.7 million zero-emission trucks will hit California roads by 2050. The California Energy Commission estimates that the state will need new 157,000 chargers to support 180,000 medium and heavy-duty electric trucks and buses by 2030.

Commercial enterprise is starting to get in on the action. Daimler Truck North America announced a $650 million joint venture to develop charging and hydrogen-fuelling infrastructure for medium-duty and heavy-duty commercial trucks. It plans to add charging stations and hydrogen stations along various freight routes, starting with a Southern California site.

The rest of the world
While you could argue that California has just implemented the strictest clean fleet rules in the world – that certain fleets such as drayage and last mile delivery be zero emission by 2035 – the 2045 deadline for all medium and heavy-duty trucks isn’t unique.

In Europe, most countries have a similar deadline for new trucks. Norway, for example, has the most zero emission trucks in use and as of 2022, there were more than 10,000 zero emission trucks on the road, accounting for 5.0 per cent of all trucks in the country.

Norway has a number of policies in place to support the adoption of zero emission trucks, including tax breaks, subsidies, and grants and the country also has a well-developed charging infrastructure for electric trucks. Other countries with a significant number of zero emission trucks in use include the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark.

The Global Memorandum of Understanding on Zero-Emission Trucks and Buses is another example of the green movement. The international agreement was signed by 15 countries in November, committing the signatories to working together to enable 100 per cent zero-emission new truck and bus sales by 2040 with an interim goal of 30 per cent zero-emission vehicle sales by 2030. The countries involved include Canada and the United Kingdom.

Regardless of what happens in California, the fact is that any future US president could retract the law. Donald Trump revoked a similar rule that allowed California to set auto tailpipe pollution standards. Perhaps with this in mind, California policy makers will look to other countries who have already tackled the zero-emission challenge and appear to be winning.

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