Joro Walker: Leverage stimulus to invest in Utah’s clean air

While our skies here on the Wasatch Front have been crystal clear in recent weeks, winter inversions and summer ozone buildup mean we are all too aware of the connection between air quality and our health. Now, researchers are finding greater health risks from the coronavirus due to air pollution, underscoring the importance of cleaning up our air permanently, for our health and our future prosperity.

State policy makers and business leaders have begun contemplating economic recovery plans for Utah even as front-line health care providers are scrambling to help manage the still-unfolding public health crisis. We face huge economic and health care challenges ahead. But this is also a moment of decision.

In my years of working on air quality issues that plague Utah, I have delved into the causes of our air pollution as well as legal and policy solutions to address it. I know that poor air quality impacts all of us who are exposed to it, especially the most vulnerable among us: children, the elderly, and those who suffer from chronic illnesses. Air pollution is also a threat to job recruitment and our economic future.

As we all see more clearly than ever before the links between clean air, healthy lungs, and our overall well-being, Utah leaders have a great opportunity to leverage the massive federal and state stimulus effort underway by making forward-thinking investments that will lead to cleaner air and a healthier future, by:

  • Building electric vehicle charging networks, to ensure every Utahn has access to zero-emission vehicles;

  • Retrofitting and insulating homes and offices so that they use carbon-free electricity and less energy, saving families and businesses money; and

  • Investing for equity, making resources available to all urban neighborhoods and rural communities, as well as First Nations, where systemic federal neglect has left thousands of households lacking access to basic modern infrastructure.

Most of these suggestions are outlined in the Utah Roadmap report, released earlier this year by the University of Utah’s respected Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, at the request of the Utah Legislature. Measures to improve Utah’s air quality also will help our state reduce the emissions that drive climate change, a challenge that will remain after this pandemic ends and that will present continuing health and economic risks.

We already have seen climate change impacts in Utah, including reduced snowpack, increased ozone pollution in the summer, more intense wildfires, and prolonged drought. More intense wildfires due to climate change have caused record-breaking spikes in short-term particulate pollution, and many counties in Utah receive failing grades for health risks due to overall poor air quality. Left unchecked, climate change will affect the health, communities, and livelihoods of generations to come.

The Utah Roadmap report charts a way forward by identifying seven “milepost” opportunities to reduce air and climate emissions. The report calls for reducing criteria pollutant air emissions 50 percent below 2017 levels by 2050 and reducing statewide carbon-dioxide emissions 50 percent by 2030. The latter target is in line with what scientists worldwide say is needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

At this time when state leaders are looking toward economic recovery, forward-thinking policies can help our state toward new economic opportunities, better air quality, and a healthier future. They can direct economic stimulus funding toward shovel-ready projects that help expand clean, renewable energy development and build out electric vehicle infrastructure, and they can adopt policies that help increase electric vehicle use. Our health, and that of future generations, depends on the wise foresight of these decisions that will be made in the months ahead.

Joro Walker

Joro Walker is general counsel for Western Resource Advocates and lives in Salt Lake City.