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Issues Of The Environment: The Push For Michigan To Produce More Electric Passenger Vehicles

Charles Griffith
The Ecology Center

The buses and heavy trucks that travel our towns and highway system contribute a significant part of the emissions causing climate change. We are in the midst of transition, as manufacturers are moving more toward electric vehicle production. WEMU's David Fair and Charles Griffith, the director of the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center's climate and energy program, discussed the push for Michigan to join others in a commitment to zero out emissions from heavy vehicles by 2050.  


  • Although car traffic significantly decreased (as much as 40% in some cities) during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, there were still six Ozone Action Days in Michigan. As cars have become less polluting, other forms of transportation--particularly heavy semi-trucks--contribute more heavily to dirty air. A focus on buses and trucks is essential because while these larger vehicles account for just 10% of all vehicles, according to federal data, they are responsible for 28% of global warming emissions and up to 57% of fine particulate emissions.

  • Every year more than 20,000 Americans die prematurely because of the pollution from our roadway vehicles, according to one study. Alarmingly, the Detroit-Warren-Ann Arbor area ranks 12th for annual particle pollution out of 204 metropolitan areas by the American Lung Association. Discrepancies in air quality are even more stark when race and poverty are considered. Zip codes with a greater preposition of poor residents and people of color are the most polluted. 

  • Michigan has joined a memorandum of understanding signed by 15 other states committing to zero out emissions from trucks and buses by 2050. Pres. Biden made several campaign promises to strengthen emission standards for trucks and support the electrification of vehicles through policy, and these states hope to encourage Congress to support these actions. 

  • Charles Griffith, Climate and Energy Program Director for the Ecology in Ann Arbor, says that Southeast Michigan is poised to lead the transition to zero-emission medium- and heavy-duty vehicles.

Michigan asks Biden and Congress to strengthen truck fuel efficiency standards, incentivize clean energy manufacturing

A school bus drops children off on the corner. A semi-truck brings car parts to the assembly factory.  A garbage truck picks up trash and recycling every week around the neighborhood. 

Envision a world in which all of these can happen without producing harmful pollution, and at a cost that is cheaper to American households and businesses. That day may be closer than we think — if the Biden administration and Congress strengthen truck fuel efficiency standards, incentivize clean energy manufacturing and support initiatives that produce cleaner and more cost-effective transportation options. 

We also need Michigan to join the memorandum of understanding signed by 15 other states committing to zero out emissions from trucks and buses by 2050.     

Every year more than 20,000 Americans die prematurely because of the pollution from our roadway vehicles, according to one study. Alarmingly, the Detroit-Warren-Ann Arbor area ranks 12th for annual particle pollution out of 204 metropolitan areas by the American Lung Association.

We need transformative climate and clean air action now because we can’t build a healthy future on a sick planet or in a polluted neighborhood.

A focus on buses and trucks is essential because while these larger vehicles account for just 10% of all vehicles, according to federal data, they are responsible for 28% of global warming emissions and up to 57% of fine particulate emissions.

In fact, a new report by the Environmental Defense Fund titled Clean Trucks, Clean Air, American Jobs, analyzed the effects of eliminating tailpipe pollution from medium and heavy-duty vehicles — including buses, semis and other long-haul trucks, and the “last-mile” trucks that deliver packages to American homes.

The report found that by reducing pollution in freight trucks used in urban and community areas by 2035 and eliminating pollution from all new freight trucks and buses by 2040, would save more than 57,000 people from premature death by 2050. It would also eliminate more than 4.7 billion metric tons of climate pollution by 2050, saving our society $485 billion in health and environmental benefits alone as a result of pollution reductions.

Thankfully, zero-emission trucks and buses are quickly becoming available, with more than 100 models of electric vehicles either already available or coming to market by 2024, ranging from shuttle buses and delivery vans to school buses and tractor-trailers. 

Delivery vehicles under development by GM with its new BrightDrop EV600 truck it will start making for Fed Ex, as well as announced electrification plans by Ford, Rivian and Amazon are just a few examples of progress in the short-haul sector. Daimler and Volvo are two examples of companies that have announced alternative options in the more challenging heavy duty truck market.

But our elected officials must now help to accelerate the transition to electric trucks and buses, bolstering the market while also making our communities more sustainable and equitable than before.

First, we need the Biden administration to follow-through on its commitment to strengthen emission standards, both for light-duty vehicles as well as trucks. Second, we need Congress to boost investments in clean energy and automotive manufacturing. Third, we need to directly invest in cleaner trucks and buses for our communities. 

The good news is that Michigan is well positioned to lead this transformation. We have world class vehicle manufacturing, research and ingenuity. We have companies committed to producing a cleaner, more cost-effective fleet. We have leadership at the local, state and national level ready to take action. And we have the engagement of environmental, labor and community groups grounded in the real concerns and issues of families — a powerful recipe to deliver equitable solutions. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.ecocenter.org/opinion-michigan-should-lead-clean-transformation-trucks-and-buses)

Memorandum of Understanding

A bipartisan group of governors representing 15 states from across the nation and the District of Columbia spoke in unison today, committing to zero-out toxic air pollution from new medium- and heavy-duty truck and bus sales by 2050. The announcement is the largest-ever multi-state collaboration to clean up transportation pollution.

By signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU), a diverse mix of states that includes California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington as well as the District of Columbia agreed to work collaboratively to move from dirty fossil fuel trucks towards zero-emission electric vehicles.

The MOU, organized by the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM), calls for 30 percent of new truck and bus sales to be zero-emission by 2030 and 100 percent zero-emission by 2050. These states collectively account for almost 50 percent of the U.S. economy and nearly 40 percent of goods moved by truck (by value).

Under the MOU, states will work together to accelerate the medium- and heavy-duty zero-emission vehicle market with input from stakeholders, including frontline communities, public health experts, organized labor, utilities, businesses, manufacturers, and environmental groups.

To meet these targets, key policies are identified in the MOU for states to consider, including the Advanced Clean Truck Rule and investments in electric vehicle charging infrastructure. The plan the states develop will serve as a roadmap to increase electric vehicle supply, encourage zero-emission vehicle purchases, and establish a supportive ecosystem comprised of a trained workforce, charging infrastructure, and financing tools.

The agreement’s ambition matches the challenge and sends a clear message: zero-emission electric trucks and buses are the future.

Big Challenges Demand Bold Action

Transitioning to zero-emission medium- and heavy-duty vehicles is long overdue. When these vehicles burn diesel or gasoline for power, they belch black smoke filled with toxic air pollution, such as nitrogen oxide (NOx) and particulate matter (PM), or soot. The transportation sector is the single largest source of NOx emissions, which leads to smog, and a major source of PM pollution. Heavy-duty vehicles make up the largest share of transportation’s NOx pollution and is expected to continue being a significant source of smog over the next decade.

This pollution chokes cities and rural communities, resulting in increased respiratoryand cardiovascular diseases, including asthma, lung cancer, heart attacks, and strokes, and can cause premature death. The hazard to public health and the environment of these and other pollutants is so great, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets national standards, known as National Ambient Air Quality Standards, to identify pollution concentration levels that are unhealthy. Sadly, 45 percent of U.S. residents live in counties with unhealthy levels of smog or soot.

Air pollution is a public health crisis for many Americans. In the 15 states that signed the MOU, transportation’s NOx emissions range from almost half to three-quarters of all in-state NOx pollution.

Truck and Bus Pollution Reflects Racism and Classism

It is vital that communities hurting the most from air pollution reap the benefits from zero-emission vehicles immediately. Racist and classist policies in America led to a transportation system where many freeways and freight hubs were sited in or around communities of color and low-income communities, disproportionately exposing them to toxic diesel vehicle emissions. States must prioritize using zero-emission technology in operations that directly impact suffering communities, such as port drayage and warehouse trucks.

COVID-19, a respiratory virus, has further intensified these inequities. Research suggests that areas with higher long-term levels of air pollution also suffer higher COVID-19 death rates. Structural inequities, including disproportionate exposure to transportation pollution, are devastating communities of color and African-Americans in particular, who are being hit hardest by COVID-19.

Exacerbating existing air pollution levels is just one of the devastating consequences of climate change. The transportation sector is responsible for nearly 30 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. Every region in the country has experienced firsthand the severe cost in people and capital from some combination of climate-induced droughts, wildfires, tornados, hurricanes, flooding, or elevated temperatures that worsen air quality and stifle economic activity. Tackling climate change means removing diesel and gasoline from transportation.

The Benefits of Trucks to Come

In 2019, over a quarter-million people were employed in the clean vehicle industry. To date, over $300 billion in global private investments have flowed into electric vehicles. As the MOU states act to attract private investments and make their own, new jobs will emerge.

Moreover, thanks to the lower cost of filling up with electricity rather than fossil fuels, electric vehicles save fleets and consumers money on fuel. Money that’s largely redirected toward local services—the most labor-intensive and skill-diverse sector of the economy—that cannot be outsourced. Shrinking and shifting expenditures from diesel and gasoline to the labor-intensive service industry, will serve as a potent job creator and economic stimulant.

Fuel savings are just one slice of the pie. Battery electric trucks and buses—regardless of who owns them—can shrink electric bills for all customers by using the electric grid to charge when electricity demand is low. This spreads more sales over the fixed cost of the system.

And that’s exactly what’s happening. In the two utility service territories with the most electric vehicles (Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison), utility revenue from charging exceeded system costs from 2017 to 2018, putting downward pressure on everyone’s electric rates.

Other States Should Join the MOU

While 15 states banded together today, other states can and should sign-on to the MOU. This is a historic undertaking with clear public health, environmental, and economic benefits offered by zero-emission trucks and buses. The collective learnings and state actions initiated as a result of the MOU will prove invaluable for states working to correct structural inequities and pursue a sustainable economic recovery. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.ecocenter.org/opinion-michigan-should-lead-clean-transformation-trucks-and-buses)

Ozone Action

Ozone Action season in Southeast Michigan begins in May. This is the 27th year of the voluntary program that helps keep Southeast Michigan’s air clean. In 2019, there were five Ozone Action days. It is more important than ever that local governments, businesses, and the general public do what they can do to voluntarily lower pollutant emissions on Ozone Action days when high levels of ozone are expected. Breathing high concentrations of ozone can cause a variety of health problems, particularly for the elderly, children, and people with asthma or other lung diseases.

Ozone Action days are called when hot summer temperatures are expected to combine with pollution to create high amounts of ground-level ozone. Breathing high levels of ozone can trigger a variety of health problems, particularly in children, the elderly, and people with asthma or other lung diseases. On Ozone Action Days, people are asked to take certain actions that can help reduce the formation of ozone and keep it at levels that meet the national air quality standard. (Source: *directly quoted* https://semcog.org/keep-the-air-clean)

Traffic down during pandemic, Pollution not declining much

With traffic dramatically down in recent months, the United States is in the middle of an accidental experiment showing what happens to air pollution when millions of people stop driving. The air is clearer. But the pollution declines aren't nearly as large as early indications suggested, according to an NPR analysis of six years of Environmental Protection Agency data.

In some cities, the amount of one pollutant, ozone, has barely decreased compared with levels over the past five years, despite traffic reductions of more than 40%. Ground-level ozone, or smog, occurs when the chemicals emitted by cars, trucks, factories and other sources react with sunlight and heat. NPR analyzed more than half a million air pollution measurements reported to the EPA from more than 900 air monitoring sites around the country. We compared the median ozone levels detected this spring with levels found during the comparable period over the past five years Our analysis revealed that, in the vast majority of places, ozone pollution decreased by 15% or less, a clear indication that improving air quality will take much more than cleaning up tailpipes of passenger cars.

Scientists say those cities, where air pollution often exceeds federal health standards, will likely have to change the way they generate power, manufacture goods and move those goods around if they hope to have healthy air. "I think it's a really important [question] to think about: What can we learn from decreases in traffic pollution?" says Jenna Krall, a statistician and air pollution expert at George Mason University. "It will give us more information about what these pollution mixtures could look like [with] fewer people driving." "I've read a lot of newspaper articles over the past couple weeks that have said if only we can have people telecommute one day a week across the entire basin, our air quality problems will be solved," says Fine. "And unfortunately, it's not that simple."

As passenger cars have gotten cleaner, they've become a relatively smaller source of pollution. Heavy-duty transportation, such as trucks and buses, now accounts for the largest source of nitrogen oxides, which form ozone. [For example,] major ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach handle more than 30% of the nation's shipping container traffic, requiring a vast network of ships, trucks and trains coming in and out of the region. Emissions from those sources, combined with hot and stagnant weather, cause air pollution to hit dangerous levels during the summer, which puts the region out of compliance with federal air standards. Low-income communities are hit the hardest.While activity at the region's ports has slowed with the pandemic, trucks have largely stayed on the roads to ensure that goods are arriving in stores. At the end of April, truck activity was down only about 8% across California, according to the American Transportation Research Institute.

In a strange wrinkle, the reduction of one pollutant can also make ozone slightly worse. Cars and trucks produce nitrogen oxides, also known as NOx. While that pollutant helps form ozone, under some conditions it can temporarily break down ozone molecules. So with less NOx being emitted recently, ozone hasn't been suppressed as much. "Small reductions in NOx actually increase ozone," says Cesunica Ivey, assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering at the University of California, Riverside. "So we're just going to have to be more aggressive with our sustainable transportation solutions." (Source: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/05/19/854760999/traffic-is-way-down-due-to-lockdowns-but-air-pollution-not-so-much)


David Fair: This is 89 One WEMU, and welcome to another edition of Issues of the Environment. It's a weekly feature we've presented for over 26 years now. I'm David Fair, and many of the conversations that we've had over those more than two decades have focused on transportation and the need to better deal with transportation pollution. Our guest today is an expert on the matter. Charles Griffith is climate and energy program director at the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center. And, Charles, nice to have you back again.

Charles Griffith: It's great to be back with you, too, David.

David Fair: Now, in many parts of our country and the world, when the pandemic shut everything down, we actually start to see the air clear a bit. There was no longer the haze of smog over Los Angeles. India reported the cleanest air conditions in decades, and, yet, the impacts of climate change continue to worsen. And now, as we get back to some semblance of normalcy in our day-to-day lives, vehicle pollution, particularly busses, trucks, and heavy tractor trailers, that's going to get back to peak levels rather quickly if it hasn't already. How significant a role do those heavy vehicles contribute to dirty air?

Charles Griffith: David, it's really interesting. I mean, they only make up about 10 percent of the vehicles on the road, but they account for more than a quarter of greenhouse gases and more than half of the dirty particulate pollution from transportation that we know disproportionately impacts people of color and low-income communities that are likely to live near trucking corridors and distribution centers and things like that.

David Fair: I was going to point out, and I'm glad that you did. This is clearly not just an environmental issue, but a public health issue as well. The Environmental Defense Fund reported that more than 20,000 Americans every year die prematurely simply because of the pollution from our roadway vehicles. Are those kinds of figures a surprise to you as they were to me?

Charles Griffith: Well, I've been at this for a little while, so it's not a surprise to me anymore. But, yes, they are pretty staggering figures. And for folks that generally think about vehicles and vehicle pollution, they probably don't think as much about the contribution that these bigger trucks, you know, mostly powered by diesel, contribute to the pollution in our urban cores and along trucking corridors, as I mentioned.

David Fair: As you mentioned, people of color, those living in low-income areas, much more dramatically impacted. So this makes it an environmental justice issue as well. Environmental justice--is that a growing aspect of what you explore at the Ecology Center?

Charles Griffith: Yeah, we've had a high value around social justice in general, but environmental justice has been a topic that we've been focusing on for quite a long time. Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan have some of the preeminent researchers on environmental justice, and they've been colleagues of ours over the years. And it's just a core theme of everything we do because we want to clean up the environment for everybody, and we can't leave anybody behind.

David Fair: 89 One WEMU's Issues of the Environment and our conversation on transportation pollution continues with Charles Griffith. Charles is climate and energy program director at the Ecology Center. And to highlight just how bad it is around here, the American Lung Association says the Ann Arbor-Detroit-Warren Corridor ranks 12th for poor air quality in a study of more than 200 metropolitan areas around the country. Charles, Michigan has recognized that dealing with this heavy vehicle pollution has to be a priority. As such, it's joined with 15 other states and committing to zeroing out emissions from trucks and busses by the year 2050. First of all, the commitment is a memorandum of understanding between these states. It is a small number of states. What weight does the memorandum actually carry?

Charles Griffith: Well, actually, I need to clarify something. The governor has not yet signed Michigan on with these other states. We've been asking her to do so. I think she's been hearing some pushback from those in the industry that are fearful that it would lead to something that they might not like. You're right that the memorandum only has a commitment to try to figure out solutions to zero out pollution from the sector. But, you know, one of the ways that you can get there is by reinstating vehicle standards for these larger trucks, as California has done. And now several other states have signaled their interest in following suit.

David Fair: Very often changes driven by what happens at local level. Certainly, communities in Washtenaw County, including Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, have committed to becoming carbon neutral. And part of that involves transportation policy and initiatives. But that's not taking place at all levels of government, as you've just pointed out. How are you working to inspire other governmental bodies and elected leaders to move forward and to do so quickly?

Charles Griffith: Well, certainly, start with your own fleets. Look for opportunities to purchase cleaner trucks and vehicles in your city fleet. We think there are a lot of interesting electric trucks that are coming onto the market now that will be options for cities to explore. I know the city of Ann Arbor is looking at things like electric recycling trucks, compost trucks, things of that nature. The next step would be looking at ways that they can incentivize or even require the other private trucking fleets and delivery vehicles and things of that sort to clean up and hopefully electrify over the coming years.

David Fair: We're talking with Ecology Center Climate and Energy Program Director Charles Griffith on Eighty-Nine one WEMU's Issues of the Environment. And as you mentioned, we can't achieve the reduction in heavy vehicle emissions without a transformation of the corporate transportation industry. We've seen GM commit to 30 all-electric vehicles for passenger vehicles on a global basis by 2025. Ford moving in that similar direction. That certainly helps. But how much behind is the movement for busses and heavy trucks and that part of the manufacturing sector?

Charles Griffith: Well, actually, I don't know that I would say it's behind, David. The passenger vehicles getting all the buzz in the heavy duty sector. There are announcements from GM and Ford that they were going to be developing over the next year or two. The electric delivery trucks that are best known as those last mile vehicles that bring your packages to your home or to your local shops. And then, you know, you mentioned busses. There have been very robust developments in the transit bus and now school bus sectors. There are really good vehicles on the market now, and many transit agencies are starting to make the switch. I know that Port Huron in Michigan, interestingly, is getting the first two electric transit busses, and Detroit and the Smart Transit Authority are also getting some electric transit busses later this year. Those are, you know, well-established electric vehicles that are available for any transit agency. Now, they cost a little bit more. So, we're interested in policies and programs and federal programs that help bring down those costs a little bit. There's money actually in the governor's proposed budget that the Legislature hasn't acted on yet that would help create a fund to provide incentives for fleets to switch over to clean, electric transportation options. There's also money in the federal legislation that's being discussed right now. The infrastructure spending bills that we, I know, have talked about probably on your program have included some money to help electrify transit and school bus fleets across the country.

David Fair: Again, though, affordability is an issue at all levels. Realistically, how long can government subsidy be a part of the equation?

Charles Griffith: Yeah, that's a really good point. We don't think that it needs to be there for long. It's used more as a jumpstart of the market to help get the vehicles out into circulation, build demand, and then drive down those prices. The trains and busses that I was talking about, they're going to go. They are very close to cost parity. And, believe it or not, I think within the next five or so years, those vehicles, it will be cheaper to purchase and operate than a standard diesel bus. And, at that point, you're talking about it being an added cost for local governments or transit agencies to keep buying the older diesel versions of those busses. School busses--there's a little bigger gap. And so, people are looking at creative ways to get value out of those battery packs, like, for example, using them to provide power back to the grid during times in the summer when they are largely sitting around. And that added value could help cut the cost difference.

David Fair: The way you make it sound, Charles, is the future is clear, and it is electric. If you were to paint a word picture of what our transportation system in America might look like 20 years from now, based on your decades of experience in this realm, what's that going to be?

Charles Griffith: Oh, let's see how I can do a word picture over the radio.

David Fair: It's not like I'm asking anything difficult.

Charles Griffith: No, no. Think of the trucks that you may think of when you experience them in your neighborhoods or in your city. And now think about them being quiet, clean, and actually connected to the grid in ways that help provide backup power and help make it more efficient to keep prices down and to help integrate other renewable energy resources into the grid. There's a lot of ways that those batteries can be used that sort of help support, you know, renewable energy by using that energy when it's abundant and then providing energy back to the grid and perhaps the sun goes down in the evening time. It's going to be a really different world in terms of both our transportation system and our electric system. It's very exciting to think about.

David Fair: Well, as we move towards that end. You and I are going to have opportunity to talk a lot more about it and how we get there. So, thank you very much for today, and I'll look forward to our next conversation.

Charles Griffith: My pleasure, David.

David Fair: That is Charles Griffith, climate and energy program director at the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center and our guest on Issues of the Environment. This weekly feature is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner, and you hear it every Wednesday. For more information on the topic and Charles's work, visit our website at WEMU dot org. I'm David Fair, and this is Eighty-Nine One WEMU FM and HD one Ypsilanti.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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