Prioritizing the rollout of electric and hydrogen fuel cell trucks for moving goods around California would benefit disadvantaged communities even more than decarbonizing building operations with clean energy, according to a new analysis.
Disadvantaged communities are disproportionately impacted by air pollution. Decarbonization means cleaner air, less air pollution, and better health for all. But there are lots of different technologies that could contribute to decarbonization, and few studies have evaluated how different decarbonization strategies will specifically affect disadvantaged communities.
That leaves untapped a major opportunity for environmental justice. “The substantial effort that California is taking to reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses (GHG) can and should also achieve environmental justice benefits by providing cleaner air within socially and economically disadvantaged communities,” says study team member Scott Samuelsen, a clean energy researcher at the University of California in Irvine.
The new study suggests that by tweaking the technologies and fuels that are used in different sectors of the economy, policymakers can design climate change mitigation strategies to maximize improvements in public health in disadvantaged areas.
Samuelsen and his collaborators modeled the greenhouse gas, air quality, and corresponding public health benefits of two scenarios designed to reduce California’s 2050 greenhouse gas emissions by 80% compared to 1990 levels. One scenario emphasized decarbonizing buildings with renewable electricity, and the other focused on decarbonizing trucking with electric and fuel cell vehicles.
Overall, decarbonizing buildings saves somewhat more carbon emissions and has about 15% greater health benefits for California’s population compared to decarbonizing trucking, the researchers report in the journal Nature Communications.
That’s because the renewable electricity that would power buildings in the green building scenario has lower carbon emissions than the renewable natural gas that would power buildings in the green trucking scenario.
But that’s not the whole story. “While building electrification achieves greater total health benefits in the region as a whole than zero-emission trucks, the deployment of clean trucks disproportionally attains air quality health benefits in disadvantaged communities,” Samuelsen says.
In fact, both scenarios deliver a disproportionate benefit to disadvantaged communities. But the disproportionality is even more pronounced in the green trucking scenario. Green trucking benefits low-income residents more effectively because they tend to live and work closer to ports, industrial facilities, and highways.
Both scenarios especially reduce air pollution in the San Joaquin Valley in Central California and the South Coast Air Basin around Los Angeles.
The health co-benefits are greater than the cost of implementing either decarbonization scenario.
Both building electrification and decarbonization of trucking are necessary to meet California’s greenhouse gas targets and maximize public health benefits for the population as a whole and for disadvantaged communities, adds Samuelsen.
A major unanswered question is how to time the rollout of clean energy technologies while balancing economics and climate and public health impacts, he says. The researchers are now analyzing additional decarbonization scenarios to address this question, and explore how to meet California’s new greenhouse gas reduction target of reaching carbon neutrality by 2045.
Source: Zhu S. et al. “Decarbonization will lead to more equitable air quality in California.” Nature Communications 2022.
Image: National Renewable Energy Lab via Flickr.