The legislature’s arcane Regulation Review Committee isn’t used to the spotlight. It normally works behind the scenes, making sure state regulations are consistent with the legislation that authorized them.
But as it prepares to consider new rules that would require the sale of only zero-emissions new cars by 2035, its role in the process has been been center stage, as The Connecticut Mirror has explained in several stories. The opinion pages have been packed with commentary on both sides.
Lost in this politically contentious shuffle has been the underlying reason we’re even here.
The short answer: the environment.
The slightly longer answer: climate change, air quality and health. And Connecticut has serious problems with all of them.
The state continues to register ozone pollution levels that exceed those allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency. And the state is not on track to meet its Global Warming Solutions Act-mandated greenhouse gas emissions levels —the human-caused emissions that are responsible for rampant global warming and the climate changes it is causing.
All of these already are having serious impacts on the health of Connecticut citizens.
“When we talk about climate change emissions, we’re often thinking about our environment. We’re thinking about the Earth. We’re thinking about our future,” said Manisha Juthani, commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Public Health. “But the practical here and now, right now, is these issues impact the health of people, their children, their families every day, right now.”
Transportation emissions are widely regarded as key to addressing all of the above, and that’s why these new rules exist.
There are two, both aimed at reducing motor vehicle emissions.
One is for cars. It essentially updates existing emissions levels by requiring that all new vehicles sold in the state must have zero emissions beginning in 2035. The other is for medium and heavy duty vehicles — trucks. Beginning in 2035, 40%-75% of new vehicle sales (depending on the class of vehicle — there are several) must be zero emissions.
Neither action affects existing vehicles, the sale of used vehicles, or prohibits zero-emission vehicles that are not electric. It also allows plug-in hybrid cars that have gasoline backups.
Both follow the standards set by California, which the Connecticut legislature approved in 2003 for cars. Under rules of the federal Clean Air Act going back to its inception in 1970, states have been able to choose one of two sets of emissions regulations for motor vehicles: those set by the EPA or more stringent ones set by California.
California was granted that right because even before the Clean Air Act came into existence, California was regulating emissions to deal with its massive pollution problems — the notorious “brown cloud” — mainly from automotive sources. The state is allowed to seek a waiver from the EPA for its standards, and the shorthand for it has come to be called “the California waiver.”
California’s most recent car waiver — again, Connecticut already follows California car regulations — mandates 100% zero emissions for new car sales in 2035. It’s known as Advanced Clean Cars II.
California has also received a waiver for its Advanced Clean Trucks regulation. In 2022, Connecticut legislators approved use of that. Official adoption of both was announced this summer.
Why the focus on transportation?
To channel Willie Sutton: it’s where the emissions are.
“The vehicle standards and addressing transport are two of the most important levers we have,” said Tracy Babbidge, acting deputy commissioner of the environmental quality branch of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “It’s both from the reduction potential but, also, these are regional strategies.”
States from Maine through the mid-Atlantic region, with the exception of New Hampshire, have or are in the process of adopting these regulations.
Greenhouse gas emissions
Greenhouse gases are one of two big buckets of emissions that are at issue. Under the Global Warming Solutions Act, the state is mandated to reduce levels of greenhouse gas emissions economy-wide to 45% below 2001 levels by 2030 and 80% below 2001 levels by 2050. Not only is the state not on track to meet those benchmarks, emissions are going up, not down.
The Connecticut Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory, issued by DEEP in 2021, showed that in 2019 (the most recent data) the transportation sector was the single largest contributor, at 40% of all emissions.
The persistently high transportation emissions stand in contrast to those from the electric sector, which have dropped precipitously since the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative came into existence. RGGI essentially put a price on carbon emissions from power plants, which in turn incentivized many plants to turn towards lower carbon or no-carbon alternatives.
But since approving RGGI, the Connecticut legislature has balked at approving legislation to address emissions from transportation or from buildings, now the No. 2 source. A bill to implement the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a multi-state collaboration to use a carbon fee on gasoline to reduce greenhouse gases, lost in spectacular fashion in 2021. The medium- and heavy-duty trucks approval was among a few items, including mandates for electric school buses, that made it through in 2022. In 2023, the legislature pushed aside all efforts to deal with greenhouse gas emissions, including comprehensive legislation aimed at building emissions.
DEEP now says transportation emissions would need to decline by about one-third to meet the GHG 2030 mandate. If they don’t meet the levels: “There’s no punitive action set in the statute” said Paul Farrell, acting bureau chief for the air management bureau at DEEP. “Potentially the risk is litigation — citizens’ suit. Someone sues DEEP for not complying with the statutes.”
Connecticut’s ozone pollution, also known as smog, is some of the worst in the country. This is the pollution we get in the summer when standard pollutants essentially “cook” in the sun to form ozone.
For nearly a half century, most of the state has registered ozone that exceeds the National Ambient Air Quality Standards set by the EPA. Right now, the southern part of the state — Fairfield, New Haven and Middlesex counties — doesn’t even meet the more lenient 2008 standards. Officially, that’s called being “in non-attainment,” and those counties worsened just last year to being in “severe non-attainment.” The entire state is in moderate non-attainment with the stricter 2015 standards. Farrell expects that to worsen to serious.
This past summer, the state experienced 19 bad air quality days due to high ozone levels — slightly lower than most recent years due to somewhat lower temperatures and a lot of rain. It’s certainly better than the terrible air of the 1970s. But it remains persistent.
Some of what causes the state’s ozone problem does blow in from out of state — a combination of bad luck due to the prevailing winds and upwind power plants that for decades have battled Clean Air Act provisions and EPA efforts to get such plants to install and use pollution controls and/or change fuel sources.
The latest effort by upwind states to block what’s known as the good neighbor rule just landed in the U.S. Supreme Court, and Connecticut has joined 11 states and other entities fighting them.
But in Connecticut, the transportation sector is responsible for more than 67% of ozone-forming precursor emissions — nitrogen oxides, known as NOx — according to a report by DEEP. Medium- and heavy-duty vehicles account for 53% of NOx emissions among all mobile sources, despite comprising only 6% of vehicles by weight.
“There’s no question that, pound-for-pound, diesel trucks are generating significant levels of pollution compared to their presence in the fleet,” said William Barrett, national senior director for clean air advocacy with the American Lung Association, which has also studied emissions. “From a climate perspective, the passenger vehicle fleet contributes far more, so we can’t say you can address one and not the other.”
Barrett and others point out that low-income communities and communities of color are the ones bearing the direct brunt of diesel exhaust, which is also carcinogenic.
“These concentrations are really at the heart of getting to environmental justice,” he said.
Non-attainment is also more than just a label. It has real consequences. States must devise a plan to fix it: a state implementation plan, or SIP.
The Fifth National Climate Assessment, released Nov. 14, specifically addressed policies that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality simultaneously in its chapter on air quality. It provided a diagram ranking solutions. Right behind the top solution of renewable and nuclear energy is electric vehicles.
But if something like widespread electric vehicle adoption remains unavailable for use in a SIP due to legislative rejection, the state could be forced to crack down on emissions from other sources, such as industrial operations and smaller businesses. Such actions could be expensive for those businesses, detrimental to economic development and more costly for consumers.
“Air pollution reductions is a zero-sum game. The reductions need to come from somewhere,” Farrell said. “If they can’t come from the mobile sector through implementation of really stringent programs such as the Clean Cars II program and the ACT program, we’re going to have to find reductions in another sector.” He said it was premature to say what specific areas could be tapped.
The biggest impact of all of these — GHG emissions, ozone pollution, bad air days — is on human health. At its worst, it’s deadly.
The health equation
Ozone is one of the biggest concerns. It can cause asthma. It can make people who already have asthma even sicker. It’s no surprise that the worst pockets of asthma in Connecticut, generally a high-asthma state, hug the major highways where truck traffic is heaviest. It’s also where economically at-risk populations with less access to medical care tend to live.
“The thing that I would want people to remember and realize is that this is a health issue. This is a public health issue. And we’re not going to be able to reconfigure our highway system,” said Juthani. “But there are things that we can do by changing some of these standards that can impact health every day.”
In the latest State of the Air report cards from the American Lung Association, downstate Connecticut is the No. 12 metro area for worst ozone in the nation. Hartford/East Hartford is No. 25, back on the list after a few years off it. The Lung Association gave half of the state’s counties grades of F for ozone pollution. No Connecticut county received an A.
The asthma data collected by the state Department of Public Health tells a similar story. As the initial pandemic wound down, asthma rates and ER visits to treat them have gone up. And that doesn’t even include private doctor or urgent care visits.
Throw greenhouse gas emissions on top and everything gets worse. The emissions warm the planet, which in turn unleashes a host of climatic conditions that trigger all kinds of direct and indirect health impacts. Heat alone can cause illnesses, and it can exacerbate existing conditions like asthma. It can also increase all kinds of pollution compounding those effects. And it can spin off into secondary and tertiary impacts.
The more intense storms caused by climate change can increase disease-carrying mosquitoes and ticks and other insects. Such storms can increase mold, which can trigger everything from more allergies to certain diseases. They can flood people out of their homes, triggering substandard living conditions, lack of needed services, anxiety and psychological breakdowns. It can cause low-weight births that lead to poor child development and cognition.
Pollution and emissions from fossil fuel-powered motor vehicles can do all that. And much more.
“The growing awareness of the many risks of climate change to human health comes back to the need for these types of vehicle emission standards, not only to eliminate the harms caused by diesel exhaust or tailpipe emissions but also helping to reduce the overall contribution to climate change, that we’re all bearing the brunt of,” Barrett said.
The Lung Association estimates that switching away from fossil fuels in the transportation and electric sectors in Connecticut would avoid 27,400 asthma attacks, 1,250 deaths, 143,000 lost work days and result in $13.7 billion in public health benefits between 2020 and 2050.
DEEP calculated that adopting the California standards for just medium- and heavy-duty trucks would avoid $270 million in health care costs for Connecticut between 2020 and 2040, and it could reach $500 million to $1.4 billion by 2050.
The National Climate Assessment made the same point: “Substantial reductions in economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions would result in improved air quality and significant public health benefits. For many actions, these benefits exceed the cost of greenhouse gas emission controls,” it said.
“I see this as a public health intervention,” Juthani said. “The cost to society, to the individual, child or adult with lost days of work, asthma exacerbations, hospitalizations, visits — all of that is a cumulative cost. It is hard to see the linear connection. But we do know that poor air quality certainly leads to those types of health outcomes. So this type of investment is an investment in our children, in our future, and making sure that overall health is improved.”
Farrell at DEEP reminds that the motor vehicle rules at issue here ramp over time, so there will be no instant changes. It may take all the way to 2050, as older cars cycle out and newer ones cycle in, to see some of them.
“This is a very, very long term commitment,” he said. “But the public health benefits that you’re going to see associated with this long term commitment — they’re going to endure.”