VW’s Dirty Diesel Dealings Can Lead To Cleaner Air & A More Equitable California

Danny Kennedy and Sara Chandler
Danny Kennedy is managing director of the California Clean Energy Fund (CalCEF), a pioneer in clean energy investment. Sara Chandler is environmental equity legal fellow at The Greenlining Institute.

On Friday, Volkswagen will hang its head before the California Air Resources Board, which will determine how the automaker will make amends for mass cheating on pollution testing. It will be a complicated process, but our state leaders should focus the solution where the problem is worst.

In California, cars are a leading source of air pollution. And our air pollution problems are epic: in this year’s State of the Air report from the American Lung Association, the five most-polluted cities in the country were all in California. Volkswagen’s malfeasance certainly doesn’t help.

If you want to see the intersection of air pollution, transportation, and California communities, maps can help. And a new company called Kevala Analytics shows in powerful visualizations that the burden of air pollution does not hit us all equally. Poor neighborhoods and communities of color suffer higher levels of air pollution – findings that have been reinforced by researchers time and time again.

Californians living in disadvantaged areas also face more health problems from pollution—from asthma attacks to cardiovascular disease. They miss more days from work and school because of air pollution. They rack up more days in the ER and the hospital—and they witness more premature funerals.

The map shows that diesel VW owners are concentrated in richer neighborhoods – but their pollution isn’t. Commuters from affluent areas regularly travel through underserved communities (where freeways typically are), contributing to poor air quality. Electric vehicle charging stations, which allow people to enjoy the ultimate in clean-vehicle transportation, are also primarily in wealthy neighborhoods. The solution is not where the pollution is.

VW’s current predicament should be used to broaden access to clean transportation. Here’s how:

VW is reportedly setting aside billions of dollars to pay for its malfeasance. California should use its share of the penalty to ensure all Californians—especially those in disadvantaged neighborhoods suffering from dangerously dirty air—have better access to cleaner vehicles and easier breathing.

For example, California could direct VW to pay for charging stations and other infrastructure upgrades in neighborhoods with poor air quality to support electric vehicles. VW could fund increased incentives and financing to help low and moderate income Californians drive electric vehicles (including VW’s electric Golf). In the long run, electric cars save their owners money once they get over the initial cost

Some argue that poor people don’t tend to drive electric cars, but that is changing.  That’s why The Greenlining Institute supports Charge Ahead, California’s program to put more electric cars and trucks on the road by boosting incentives – especially for low-income buyers — and bringing electric car sharing to underserved communities.   By cutting high up-front costs and expanding charging stations, we can help people clean the air in their own neighborhoods while saving money.

Using VW’s money to do all this makes sense. VW would make reparations for knowingly breaking air pollution rules by cutting pollution in communities suffering most from dirty air.

The California Clean Energy Fund has learned from experience that good can come from corporate transgressions. CalCEF was born out of the PG&E bankruptcy settlement. We started with $30 million and a mandate to ignite investment in California’s clean energy economy. Over the past decade, CalCEF has leveraged that initial $30 million to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in public and private investment and grow California’s world-class clean-energy sector.

As Volkswagen works to put its dirty diesel scandal behind it, the punishment should fit the crime and ensure that the money goes toward real solutions that will bring clean transportation to neighborhoods with the most urgent needs.

The result will be a cleaner, healthier, more prosperous state for all Californians.

Danny Kennedy is managing director of the California Clean Energy Fund (CalCEF), a pioneer in clean energy investment.

Sara Chandler is environmental equity legal fellow at The Greenlining Institute.

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