The Fourth Revolution
By Rachel Parsons

California’s heavy-duty electric vehicle revolution doesn’t just benefit the environment, it will help social equity efforts as well, according to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists and The Greenlining Institute.

The authors mined extensive research on pollution, demographics, geography and sociology to compile a list of recommendations for policy makers, EV manufacturers and municipalities to make the growing electric bus and truck industry work for communities of color and low income, which are disproportionately affected by environmental pollution from traditional heavy transport.

“When you look at climate change and when you look at smog, particularly from the heavy duty sector, we know that it discriminates, right?” Joel Espino, one of the authors of the report, said in a recent interview. “We know that it doesn’t impact everyone equally. Local communities of color are hit hardest by these vehicles’ smog.”

Espino serves as environmental equity legal counsel at The Greenlining Institute, an advocacy group for social equity and justice in environmental and health policy.

According to the 2016 report, nearly 90 percent of residents in the state’s most polluted regions are people of color. These communities are live along heavy freight corridors where air pollution ranging from smog-causing nitrogen oxides to visible particulate matter from exhaust is heaviest.

Overall, the transportation sector is California’s largest source of climate-related pollution, and heavy-duty vehicles contribute a “significant” portion of that pollution, especially of nitrogen oxides.

The report stressed that these “localized inequities” create adverse public health outcomes from heart disease to asthma in areas where incomes are 10 percent to 20 percent below local averages.

The social equity punch

The paper’s message: The heavy industrial EV revolution can accomplish two things, creating a positive upward cycle – clean the air in these neighborhoods and give locals good jobs at the same time.

“The litmus test for social justice groups like us is whether the transition to electrified mobility is a just and fair one,” Espino said. “So as those new jobs are being generated we need to stay true to a principle of justice and equity … and make sure that people from low income communities have a chance at a better paid job that has a career trajectory. Those folks are behind the starting line as it is and we need to help those folks catch up to the rest of us.”

The renewable energy sector in California already employs more than half-a-million people and it will continue to grow as state and local regulations push more of the California economy to go green.

It sets forth recommendations for government agencies, electric truck and bus manufacturers and job-training programs. Many of these entities have already implemented impactful social equity reforms.

In December, the California Air Resources Board mandated that all public transportation bus fleets convert to electric vehicles by 2040. And the Port of Los Angeles, one of the nation’s largest shipping ports and a major source of localized pollution, announced in the fall that it has begun the process of electrifying heavy-duty trucks and some shipyard equipment thanks in part to a $41 million grant from the state.

“The fact that they’re getting that much money for clean technologies is a win for environmental justice,” Espino said and added that the lessons learned from that transition can be applied to other agencies like the Port of San Diego, which The Greenlining Institute is working with.

For manufacturers, the paper said, the key is to create an education and job-training pathway in underserved areas from community colleges and other local partners to create a pipeline of talent for green jobs that have starting wages at up to $20 an hour.

And of course, to put manufacturing facilities in these communities. Electric bus makers Proterra and BYD have built factories in City of Industry and Lancaster, California, respectively.

Both cities have populations that are majority people of color. In Lancaster, 23 percent of the population lives in poverty according to U.S. Census data. In City of Industry, that figure is 18 percent.

Proterra did not respond for comment, but according to information provided by BYD, the Lancaster plant employs nearly 750 people, 85 percent of whom are minorities.

The company signed a legally binding agreement with Jobs to Move America, which represents labor and community groups, to ensure that populations typically underrepresented in manufacturing like women, veterans, African Americans and the formerly incarcerated have a chance at a stable job. It also worked with the local community college to create a job training program to prepare skilled workers.

The transit agency that serves Lancaster is the first in North America to transition to all-electric BYD buses, well before the 2040 state deadline. This pattern fits what the report advocates: well-paid manufacturing jobs in regions where the products made improve social equity and the quality of life.

With robust training-to-job pathways in underserved communities, expansion of existing programs to prepare people for green industry jobs, and policy that prioritizes these places, Espino and his co-authors argue, equitable economic development will lift areas that have historically borne the brunt of dirty industry.