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 July 26, 2018

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