The shortest route to achieving Biden’s climate and equity goals

Keith Gaby

Delivery vans zooming around our neighborhoods, trucks rumbling through city streets headed for warehouses, buses full of commuters and students — they’re delivering more than goods and people. They’re bringing polluted air to our communities.

That means more asthma attacks, more heart disease and ongoing inequity for the neighborhoods that already face the most pollution.

But President Biden and Vice President Harris have a chance — a narrow window for action — to make dramatic progress on this problem. They can keep the economy moving while also protecting our health by making those trucks and buses clean vehicles.

As the American Lung Association and 15 other non-partisan health groups recently wrote, “For the nation to achieve [Biden’s] vision of clean air, a safe climate, healthy communities and environmental justice, we must address emissions from heavy-duty vehicles.”

How the Biden administration can deliver

By setting pollution standards that accelerate the transition of short-haul trucks and buses to zero-emission vehicles, the Biden administration can deliver clean air and improve the health of millions of people who live in the U.S. At the same time, they can demonstrate that smart government policies can help generate good paying jobs.

The best part is that the administration has the authority to set protective pollution standards under the Clean Air Act. There’s no messy congressional fight required. Specifically, the administration should set a new generation of multi-pollutant emission standards that get us on the path to 100% of new trucks and buses being zero-emission by 2040.

The science tells us moving to clean buses and trucks can deliver huge public health benefits. Children riding a school bus are exposed to pollutants like particulate matter, ultrafine particles, black carbon and carbon monoxide, which results in inflammation, decreased lung growth and more missed school days.

Some communities face a greater burden

Research by EDF and Google in Oakland, California, mapped neighborhoods with the most air pollution — they were all near highways and a port with heavy truck traffic. This shows the danger posed by the flow of delivery vehicles in the growing number of communities where warehouses have been built to serve our online, on-demand economy.

It’s no secret that these impacts are not the same for everyone. Nearly all neighborhoods have delivery trucks, and most places have school and transit buses. But a history of unjust policies have resulted in ports, warehouses, highways and other high-polluting commercial and industrial activity being located in Black, Latino and Asian communities.

A recent study found Black Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and other people of color in the U.S. are exposed to 37% more transportation-related air pollution than white residents. That means, to be blunt, people are breathing toxic air because of the color of their skin. It’s exactly the kind of injustice Joe Biden ran for president to fix.

Revving up momentum for the EV industry

We know the technology is ready to make the switch to zero-emission vehicles. All major vehicle manufacturers are already selling or have in development zero-emission trucks, delivery vans and buses.

That’s why companies like Walmart and FedEx have committed to moving their fleets to electric vehicles. These companies recognize that the future needs to be zero-emission and that zero-emission vehicles are increasingly available and delivering business value.

Boosting the U.S. clean vehicle industry will also mean these jobs are created here at home — rather than having all electric vehicles imported from places like Germany and China. Even so, individual companies can’t do this on their own.

We’ll only move fast enough to protect communities and save lives if we have strong leadership from Washington. Too many families have been left behind. It’s time to face this injustice and deal with a major source of climate pollution at the same time.

Our neighborhoods have lived with this pollution for decades — generations of American families facing illness, lost school days and shorter lives. But now we have a president committed to doing something about it. For those who had begun to doubt that government can act to protect the people and address injustice, Joe Biden may be about to prove you wrong.