Editorial: Southern California's Smog Reduction Plan Should Achieve Zero Emissions

Editorial: Southern California’s Smog Reduction Plan Should Achieve Zero Emissions

Southern California’s smog regulators are finally accepting what pollution-ridden communities have been telling them for years: To clean up the country’s most polluted air, they must reduce emissions to zero.

After decades of focusing on increasingly cleaner burning, the South Coast Air Quality Management District is set to adopt a plan that aims for a zero-emissions economy for the first time. The district board is due to vote Friday on its roadmap to clean up ozone pollution, the lung-burning gas in smog, to meet federal health standards by 2037.

Over the next 15 years, the plan, combined with ongoing state and federal climate actions, would fuel a transformation of homes, communities and workplaces in a region of 17 million people. Where possible, fossil-fuel vehicles and appliances would be replaced with zero-emission models, including electric cars and trucks, induction cookers and heat pumps that cool and heat buildings. These technologies will begin to eliminate, rather than simply reduce, the pollution that causes smog and global warming.

The air quality board should resist pressure from polluting industries to weaken the plan. The 13-member panel, made up of elected and appointed officials from Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, has a disappointing record of delaying, watering down or even killing rules protect public health and safety in the face of pressure from powerful interests, including oil companies and the freight industry.

But it should now be clear that solving the climate and air pollution crisis largely hinges on the same solution: ending the burning of fossil fuels. Regulators must take advantage of this opportunity and every opportunity to go faster and further.

Despite dramatic improvements in air quality from decades ago, progress in reducing Southern California’s smog has stalled and the effort has even retreated in recent years. Regulators have a dismal record of not meeting air quality standards on time, and the South Coast Basin will miss a key 2023 federal deadline for smog reduction. This year, the region has recorded 124 bad air days for ozone, with readings as high as 122 parts per billion. The federal health standard is 70 ppb.

New smog reduction plan would prevent more than 1,500 premature deaths per year and many more asthma attacks, hospital visits and lost days of work and school, with higher benefits in communities hardest hit by pollution, according to the Air District.

The plan emphasizes the electrification of residential appliances, which are still mostly powered by natural gas and on track to become one of the major sources of smog-causing pollution in the region.

Business interests have tried to water down the plan, saying it should remain silent on electrification and should instead be “technology and fuel neutral”. And they complain that business owners and residents will have to bear the costs of the transition – when in reality people have long subsidized industry pollution with their health.

It’s important to note that while the district’s clean air plan aims to deploy clean technologies across all sectors, it also adds big asterisks of “if possible.” The agency’s projections show that under the plan, about half of the water, space heating and cooking on residential and commercial sites will be zero emissions by 2037. Regulators acknowledge that there are major sources of pollution that are not currently planned to move to zero-emission technologies, such as airplanes and ships, which are primarily regulated by the federal government.

But it’s still a significant change in tone from the agency’s last big smog reduction plan, which prioritized natural gas, a fossil fuel, as a “near-zero” solution. The 2017 plan focused heavily on raising billions in incentive money for voluntary pollution-reduction projects that have largely come to nothing. The agency had more success when it returned to the tried-and-tested approach of forcing industries to clean up. Local regulators have passed regulations in recent years aimed at reducing emissions from powerful industries, including oil refineries and warehouse distribution centersand are working on rules targeting Ports of LA and Long Beach.

There are also stronger tailwinds today thanks to hundreds of billions of dollars in new federal climate funding under the Cutting Inflation Act, which will support projects aimed at accelerating the transition from electric vehicles and appliances powered by renewable energy. State legislators have also invested billions in emission reduction programs.

Adopting the most aggressive air quality plan possible will put Southern California in a stronger position to secure more funding for these projects. But implementation is just as important. Regulators will need to stand firm on their commitment to zero emissions and work quickly to begin delivering the long-awaited air quality improvements to residents of the region.

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