There's much we can do -- as truly advanced nations are doing now -- to clear our dangerous air by aiming for all zero-emission vehicles on the road as soon as possible, environmental activist Susan Nerlinger details here. A lot of this can be accomplished on the ground in Maryland, if we can get the attention of our public officials.
/By Susan Nerlinger/ With the developing crisis of global climate change claiming our constant attention, the other damaging effects of air pollution have taken a back seat. But air pollution that is directly harmful to human health has not gone away. In the U.K. a recent report reminded officials, and the rest of the public, that there is no safe level of exposure to air pollution - any exposure carries a risk to human health.
Several countries have taken strong measures to eliminate air pollution from vehicles, mandating conversion to low- or zero-pollution vehicles, i.e. electric vehicles (EVs), plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) and zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs). France weighed in first, banning gas and diesel vehicles starting in 2040. The U.K. followed with a similar directive - the sale of gas and diesel cars and vans will be banned as of 2040. Norway is already using a "polluters pay" scheme of tax and toll incentives to drive fossil-fuel-powered vehicles off its roads. The government is also investing in the infrastructure, mostly electric charging stations, that is needed to support a fleet of ZEVs.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S.A. it might surprise you to know that there are comparable incentives in place in Maryland and Virginia. And the federal government offers tax rebates on the purchase of EVs and PHEVs - a program which gets no publicity and expires when the manufacturers have sold 200,000 of the vehicles. We could do better and need to let our reps in both the state and federal government know that we want to drive gas- and diesel-powered vehicles off the road. That would mean increasing the money that governments provide to fund tax rebates on the purchase of the ZEVs and funds for the installation of electric charging stations in public parking lots and parking lots of multi-family residences, e.g. apartment and condo complexes. Do they have charging stations in the parking lots where you live? One thing you can do is to advocate for their installation.
U.K. Government Forced to Act
In response to an alarming report by the British Royal College of Surgeons and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health to the effect that indoor and outdoor air pollution is causing 40,000 deaths a year in the U.K., the U.K. government announced an initiative to ban the sale of gas and diesel fuel cars and vans by 2040. A supreme court decision in the U.K. forced the government to produce an action plan to cut air pollution to legal levels by 2020 in most cities and by 2025 in London. The report stated that there is in fact no safe level of exposure to air pollution; any exposure carries a risk. Children are especially susceptible as pollution can harm developing hearts, lungs, brains, hormone systems and immunity, with research pointing towards effects also on growth, intelligence, asthma and brain development.
While the phasing out of the internal combustion engine in all cars and vans within 23 years appears radical, many in the U.K. criticized the plan's deferral of results. First, the reduction in air pollution needs to start now, not in 2040. Energy experts say that a rapid switch from gas-powered vehicles to electric will put stress on the energy grid, which would have to produce the electricity to power all the new electric vehicles. Generally, the plan has not been well-received, primarily because the action proposed is not sufficiently urgent. Commentators say that the government should offer short-term incentives for people to buy EVs and PHEVs now as in the UK today only 1 in 700 cars is purely electric.
Norway and Volvo Leading the Way
Norway explored the ban concept but instead has decided to tax diesel and gas cars out of existence. Norway is pursuing a tax scheme in which polluters pay and EV owners escape taxation in multiple ways. For example, ZEVs can use all bus lanes, toll roads and ferries free of charge, while gas-powered vehicles pay tolls on the basis of how much CO2 and NOX they emit. Norway exempts EVs from sales and VAT, which adds 25% to the cost of a new car. As of 2015, 22% of passenger cars in Norway were EV. The government plans to use its "polluters pay" tax system to drive gas and diesel cars out of Norway. Volvo, a worldwide auto manufacturer, has said it will make only hybrid or fully electric cars from 2019. If anything, the need is for governments to offer tax incentives so more people choose EVs and PHEVs now. Twenty-three years is too long to wait.
What about Air Pollution in Maryland?
Meanwhile back in Maryland, can we expect our leaders to get the internal combustion engine off our interstates, highways, and roads? They might want to consider it in light of a 2013 report by MIT saying that Maryland has the most deaths from air pollution of any state in the US. That's right. According to a story at MarylandReport.com from Kate Andries of the Capital News Service, in 2013 the problem was particularly acute in Baltimore, which boasted the highest emissions-related mortality rate of large cities in the entire country; of every 100,000 residents in the city, 130 were likely to die prematurely each year of causes related to air pollution, more than in New York City, Los Angeles, and the entire Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.
Maryland's Incentives and Improving Air Quality in the State
Fortunately, levels of air pollution have improved since the data for the MIT report were collected. And Maryland has a scheme of incentives that includes excise tax credits and the right to use HOV lanes with a permit. The program was just renewed in 2017 and, Governor Hogan claims, the state fund for tax credits on the purchase of EVs and PHEVs has been expanded by 40% while the rebate for charging stations has been doubled. Maryland and 9 other states adopted California's Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate under Governor O'Malley. Under ZEV, automakers must sell an increasing percentage of ZEVs through the 2025 model year. Since 2010, only 8,000 electric vehicles have been sold in Maryland. The state will need to sell over 280,000 ZEVs to meet the mandate.
More Maryland Plans to Reduce Auto Emissions
And Maryland has more plans to reduce pollutants from motor vehicles by 50% by 2040 with the savings coming from new federal vehicle emissions and fuel standards, as well as regional transportation investments and Transportation Emissions Reduction measures. But there is no mention of a push on the part of political leaders or lawmakers to ban the sale of gas- or diesel-powered autos in the state or the U.S. as a whole.
In an additional step to clean Maryland's air, Governor Larry Hogan has informed the EPA of Maryland's intention to sue the federal agency for its failure to enforce mandatory provisions of the Clean Air Act. The Governor wants the EPA to stop states upwind of Maryland from illegally emitting nitrogen oxide that contributes to Maryland’s pollution problems. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation as well as the Sierra Club Maryland chapter approved of this action.
With a new EPA head who is a defender of fossil fuels, we may take a few steps back before we can make substantial progress again. A great article that reports on the efforts and rollback of efforts in various states can be found here.
Let Your Officials Know that You Want to Drive Gas-powered Cars Off the Road
It might help to let Governor Hogan know that you support what he has done for clean air and that you would like him to go bolder. Ask him to promise to fund tax rebates for ALL purchases of zero-emission vehicles and all installation of electric charging stations. Let your state legislative representatives hear the same message. And while you're at it, let your House of Representative members and our senators, Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, hear about your support for federal programs that aim to drive gas- and diesel-fueled cars and trucks off the road.
And in your neighborhood, if you live in a community with a parking lot, get some electric charging stations installed so that people can switch to zero-emission vehicles.
You can monitor air quality in Maryland; the Maryland Department of the Environment posts reports on the quality of air all around the state on a monthly basis.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provides a lot of information. Enter your zip code and get a read on the current air quality in your neighborhood.
Susan Nerlinger is a Montgomery County activist.