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California approves world-first ban on diesel trucks and nation-first train emissions standards

a blue and white semi tuck is on the road in front of mountains
Image credit: Bailey Alexander // Unsplash

“The future happens here first, and California is once again showing the world what real climate action looks like,” Governor Gavin Newsom said introducing new approvals to the world’s first regulations to phase out dirty combustion trucks while moving to electrify freight and passenger trains.

On Friday, California Air Resources Board unanimously voted in favor of the ban which states that by 2036, these gas-guzzling heavy-duty trucks will no longer be sold and by 2045, the Golden State hopes to have 100% zero-emission medium heavy-duty trucks on the roads. This builds off the momentum from the state banning the sale of new gas cars by 2035 last year.

Along with introducing a world-first heavy-duty truck regulation, Governor Newsom’s office says this is a nation-first regulation for train emissions. Dubbed the In-Use Locomotive Regulation, the law will require operators to pay for the emissions they cause while operating in California. This money will go into a fund for companies to upgrade to cleaner locomotive technologies.

The regulation also limits idling trains to 30 minutes to reduce emissions and introduces measures that require switch, industrial. and passenger locomotives built in 2030 or after to be zero emission and by 2035 for freight line hauls.

This is big because right now, operations from just one train cause more emissions than 400 heavy-duty trucks.

But according to CARB, between now and 2050, the emissions reductions from the new regulation are expected to be equal to almost double those emitted by all passenger vehicles in the entire state. Transportation as a whole is responsible for about half of California’s total greenhouse gas emissions, with medium and heavy-duty vehicles accounting for a fifth of statewide emissions.

Plus, the Board says it will contribute the largest reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions specifically, inching the state closer toward meeting California air quality standards by the 2037 deadline.

While both emissions reduction regulations focus on planet-warming carbon dioxide, just one pound of nitrogen oxide, or N2O, warms the atmosphere 265 times more than 1 pound of CO2.

Globally, 40% of total N2O emissions come from human activities, and while the Environmental Protection Agency reports that only 4% of these N2O emissions come from transportation, CARB says that the locomotive regulation will also attack air pollution.

The regulation will reduce the levels of exposure to N2O and diesel particulate matter, preventing 3,200 premature deaths and 1,500 emergency room visits and hospitalizations, cutting down cancer risk from exposure to air toxins within one mile of locomotive operations by 90% and saving an estimated $32 billion in health savings.

“Locomotives are a key part of California’s transportation network, and it’s time that they are part of the solution to tackle pollution and clean our air,” CARB Chair Liane Randolph said in a statement. “With the new regulation, we are moving toward a future where all transportation operations in the state will be zero emissions.”

As many rail operations and truck-filled highways are clustered in low-income areas and communities of color, the regulations are also a win for environmental justice. Trucks and trains together are responsible for 70% of Californian’s cancer risk from air pollution. The truck rule applies to several types of fleets.

Within the next four years, school buses and garbage trucks need to be emissions-free and by 2042 no truck will be allowed to have pollution spewing from its tailpipe. On top of that, drayage trucks, which transport cargo must be zero-emission beginning next year, with the rule applying to all drayage trucks on the roads, ports, and rail houses by 2035.

Like the train rule, the truck regulations are estimated to save billions in both health dollars — $26.6 billion to be exact — and $48 billion in general savings for fleet owners making the electric switch.

“This is an absolutely transformative rule to clean our air and mitigate climate change,” Randolph said ahead of the vote on the trucking rules on Friday. “We all know there’s a lot of challenges, but those challenges aren’t going to be tackled unless we move forward … if not now, when?”

The electrification will be made possible by a fleet of companies and fortunately, the money and the innovation are already there.

The money and innovation needed for truck & train electrification

Thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, billions in federal grants and rebates to reduce air pollution are available for rail operators, truck fleet owners, and school bus companies.

Plus, California is investing $9 billion toward the Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) transition with includes a host of state grants for ports, for example. $2.6 billion of this is directed toward low-income communities, which includes funds to transition small truck fleets burdening these communities with climate pollution.

Companies like Pennsylvania-based Wabtec have an electric engine capable of reducing fuel consumption across a train’s operations by 11%. Former SpaceX engineers launched an electric rail vehicle startup, Parallel Systems, last year aiming to decarbonize freight.

“We’re making our powertrain electric, which further accelerates the decarbonization benefits because our grid itself is not clean,” CEO Matt Soule told TechCrunch in 2022, “So when you look at a diesel truck, compared to what we’re building, and looking at the average, real-world CO2 content of the U.S. grid, we’re going to be 90% less CO2 per mile to move a unit of freight with our technology versus a diesel truck today.”

Speaking of diesel trucks, many ventures are on the cusp of electrifying those fleets as well, with Tesla launching a $3.5 billion plant to build its electric semi-truck in Nevada, Volvo invested in the autonomous driving tech developer Waabi, truck maker Watt Electric Vehicle Company slated for production later this year, Volta Trucks beginning production in Europe, and Einride launching their autonomous electric trucks in Germany with plans to ride into Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg.

Back in the States, Oakland, California’s Forum Mobility received $400 million in January with the goal of electrifying many of Cali’s seaport trucks. Matt LeDucq, CEO of the company, believes that a company like his is essential to electrifying drayage trucks specifically many of which are owned by independent operators and can’t affordably meet California’s established goals without a startup partner.

“We’re going to need billions and billions of dollars in California” to reach that target, LeDucq told Canary Media — enabling an electrified truck and train fleet will require operational and logical support in addition to the finances.

“It’s easy to make a mandate,” he told the publication. ​“It’s really hard to do it in a way that’s both environmentally and economically equitable. Environmental justice can get dirty trucks out of ports — that’s a rallying cry. But what about the economic justice? It has to be part of this. You have to save the small fleets — and to do that you have to make a comprehensive solution for them.”

According to LeDucq that solution is cooperation and partnerships between fleet owners, innovative startups, and governance.

When seven states — Washington, Oregon, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Colorado, and Vermont — could follow suit in California’s diesel truck ban, these partnerships will be paramount from coast to coast.

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