No Auto Bailout Without Air, Worker and Climate Protections
Originally published April 17 in The Hill
For a few blissful weeks, the air was as clean as I’ve ever seen it here in Los Angeles. In March, our city experienced its longest streak of consecutive days with “good” air quality since the mid-1990s.
For us, this is the grim irony of the current public health crisis. With far fewer cars on the road, only a few weeks of reduced fossil fuel pollution has dramatically improved air quality here and around the world.
Smog has long taken a toll on my community and city. This pollution — disproportionately concentrated near low-income communities of color — leads to respiratory illnesses like asthma and contributes to heart disease and certain cancers. And new research shows that those who live in areas of the country with more air pollution are more likely than those in cleaner regions to die of COVID-19.
Talks of federal aid for carmakers are concerning. As Congress aids corporations through this economic slowdown, we can expect the auto industry to seek a bailout, perhaps similar to the one it received after the 2008 financial crisis.
During this horrific pandemic, we should help the nearly 1 million people who work in the car industry; those workers deserve the security that comes from continued employment.
But if public money goes to automakers, it should be tied to the public good. Any bailout should be contingent on car companies agreeing to emissions and fuel efficiency guidelines that curb air pollution and the climate crisis. There should also be protections for the industry’s workers.
Cars and trucks are America’s largest source of climate-warming emissions. Climate scientists have estimated that fossil fuel emissions must be cut nearly in half from 2010 levels by 2030 to avert the worst consequences of climate change.
Achieving this goal requires a societal shift toward low- and zero-emissions vehicles, something already happening in other parts of the world. Before the pandemic, Bloomberg estimated that European electric car sales would jump 35 percent in the first nine months of 2020, the result of consumer demand and automaker reluctance to pay governmental penalties for polluting models.
But in America, the fossil fuel industry, many automakers and the Trump administration have resisted this shift at every turn.
Last month, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized a radical rollback of fuel-efficiency standards for new American cars. This will cost Americans more at the gas pump and lead to the release of more life-threatening air pollution and nearly a billion more tons of climate-warming carbon dioxide.
President Trump has gone so far as to try to block states like California from setting their own, more protective standards. Last fall, we joined several other groups in suing the Trump administration over this absurd step that only served to protect polluting corporations.
The good news is that even some car manufacturers see the futility of this offensive by Trump and the oil companies. When Trump tried to block California from setting stronger fuel-efficiency rules, Volkswagen, Honda, Ford and BMW reached their own, voluntary agreements with the state to set more progressive standards. Just last week, Volvo opted into this deal as well.
Federal and state lawmakers should also resist polluting corporations’ attempts to exploit this crisis for their own purposes. The Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association has already sent a letter urging California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to relax the state’s mandates for big rig electrification. Such concessions are unacceptable, especially in times of such uncertainty.
The return of cars to freeways in L.A. and other cities will likely be good news — a sign that the worst of this pandemic may be past.
But the pollution we’ve gotten used to should not be considered normal or acceptable. If taxpayers are going to bail out the automotive industry, those companies must agree to manufacturing entirely zero-emissions cars and SUVs by 2030.
We have the opportunity now to take steps now to curb car pollution and create a clearer, healthier future. Congress can help us get there by requiring public aid to be in the public interest.
Originally published April 17, 2020 in The Hill
Maya Golden-Krasner is deputy director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. She lives in the Los Angeles area.