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According to the “State of the Air 2021” report recently released, the five-county Los Angeles region reportedly ranks as the metro area with the highest smog levels in the country — mostly because of motor vehicle traffic. This is the 21st time the region ranks in said position in the 22 years that the American Lung Association has been issuing the rankings.
Despite decades of progress in the state with some of the country’s most aggressive air-quality laws and initiatives, as well as improvements from the 2020 report, the region still came out on top for being the worst.
In the county-by-county breakdown, San Bernardino, Riverside, and Los Angeles counties rank first, second, and third, respectively, as the nation’s smoggiest counties. But Orange County was not left unscathed in this: it was listed 25th, also received a failing grade. Moreover, just north of Los Angeles, Ventura County, though it was not among the 25 worst, it also got an “F.” The report compiled data from a three-year period, from 2017 to 2019.
Climate change and related repercussions, including increases in wildfires and heat, are contributing to ongoing air quality challenges. However, as aforementioned, the primary factor continues to be motor vehicle traffic. Six other metro areas in the state were among the 10 worst in the country for smog. Also, other six, including Los Angeles, were among the 10 worst for soot, or particle pollution.
In 2020, despite meteoric drops in vehicle miles travelled, transportation-related emissions were still the single biggest driver of climate change in the U.S. The new study by the Rhodium Group reportedly found that cars are the biggest polluters in the sector. Moreover, more cars on the road can implicate more car accidents. In Los Angeles, car crashes are reportedly the fourth leading cause of premature death, ahead of homicides, strokes, and lung cancer.
Will Barrett, director of clean air advocacy for the American Lung Association called on state lawmakers to invest $1 billion in zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and initiatives to help lower income residents get into zero-emission cars. He also urged the California Air Resources Board to establish zero-emission rules for commercial trucks.
“More than 40% of Americans — more than 135 million people — are living in places with unhealthy levels of [smog] or particle pollution,” the report reads. “The burden of living with unhealthy air is not shared equally. People of color are more than three times more likely to be breathing the most polluted air than (are) white people.”
In Sep. 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order to get all vehicles sold in-state to be electric by 2035, which is estimated to reduce the state’s overall emissions by 35%. Analysts have predicted that the share of U.S. EV sales will quadruple to 8.5% in the next four years. Worldwide, EV sales reportedly grew by 40% last year to 2.8 million vehicles from 2 million in 2019 — despite the recession brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, shares in EV maker Tesla soared by over 700%; Ford launched its flagship Mach-E as part of a $22 billion electrification push; and GM declared early this year that it will make only electric vehicles by 2035.
But while electrification is a critical requisite to a carbon-free future it is not the sole remedy. In fact, in order to achieve climate targets, the U.S. must significantly reduce its use of cars altogether. Per an analysis done by the Rocky Mountain Institute, the U.S. transportation sector needs to reduce carbon emissions 43% by 2030 in order to align with 1.5oC climate goals, which require that we put 70 million EVs on the road and reduce per-capita vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by 20% in the next nine years.
The American Lung Association also called on the U.S. EPA to set stronger limits on ozone and particle pollution, limits on methane emissions, and “a strong, long-term plan to reduce vehicle emissions.”