Let our children settle air quality battles

Unmask my City - Serbia

The Trump administration announced recently that it wants to roll back vehicle fuel economy standards and tailpipe pollution limits. People like me (age 66), President Trump (age 71), and even USEPA Administrator Scott Pruitt (closing in on 50) will not breathe much of the air that these regulations will impact, but the nation’s 78 million kids below the age of 18 will breathe little else in their lifetimes. Perhaps we should be giving them a say over these decisions.

When I was writing “Lives Per Gallon: The True Cost of Our Oil Addiction”, I cited numerous facts about the health, economic, environmental, and national security impacts of burning gasoline and diesel fuels, but two studies quite literally took my breath away. 

A Los Angeles area study found that kids living near busy freeways lost as much as 1% of their lung function every year and suffered more asthma and missed more school days than other kids. The result? When those children turn 40, their lung function will be closer to that of a 50-year-old. 

A New York area study found toxins from vehicle exhaust in the umbilical cords of pregnant women, meaning even unborn babies were being impacted by air pollution. The result? Kids with significantly lower IQ scores and a 300% increase in the risk of heart birth defects.

Considering what our kids have at risk, in terms of air pollution and climate change, compared to older adults (who nonetheless suffer their own heart-lung illnesses from higher levels of air pollution) shouldn’t we give the youngest among us a voice in the air quality of the next several decades?

When I served as Secretary of the California EPA in 2004, we set limits of greenhouse gas pollution for vehicles, which I had to certify were both technologically and economically feasible. The cost for the added pollution control technologies would result in fuel and maintenance savings that would be repaid in under three years. 

In 2012, the Obama administration adopted fuel economy standards that would achieve both better fuel economy and reduced pollution (greenhouse gas and other pollutants combined) by demanding that carmakers achieve fleet-wide fuel economy of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. American drivers have already saved over $57 billion at the gas pump thanks to these rules and, if fully implemented, the combination of California and federal rules will cut lifetime oil consumption of model years 2012 to 2025 cars by about 12 billion barrels and cut greenhouse gas pollution by as much as six billion tons (equal to closing 140 coal-fired power plants).

In 2012 when those rules were promulgated, average fuel economy in Japan, India and the European Union was already over 40 mpg and today is 10% better still, meaning U.S. goals are not technologically or economically out of reach. And if the goal of the administration is to protect US auto jobs, didn’t we learn anything from the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s? Japanese automakers delivered fuel efficient (and therefore less polluting) cars that quickly dominated the market, even as US automakers produced more gas guzzlers, losing market share in the process.

Moreover, the UK, France and China have announced plans to ban the sale of new petroleum-powered cars by 2040, meaning their markets too will need cleaner, more efficient cars. Today, China produces over a quarter of the world’s cars - - if we make American-made cars less efficient and dirtier, will it be any surprise if that percentage increases at the expense of American jobs?

The world has been inspired by the leadership and vision shown by youth in the debate over gun control and politicians are beginning to listen. It’s time we give them a voice in policies that will have similarly profound implications for their future.

Last updated April 13, 2018

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