Utah has a serious ozone pollution problem, and those of us who live here are unfortunately all too familiar with the state’s poor air quality and its harmful effects on our health. Our wintertime inversions along the Wasatch Front trap fine particulate matter in the air we breathe, and our increasingly hot summers also bring dangerously high levels of ozone.
While some Utah leaders have blamed international ozone sources as a reason to justify local inaction, our state can in fact make substantial reductions in air pollution — from our vehicle tailpipes to our small and large industries — and it will require solutions right here at home to make a difference, especially as climate change and rising temperatures make ozone pollution worse.
According to state data submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, fossil-fueled vehicle emissions cause 50% of Utah’s human-made nitrous oxides and 30% of volatile organic compounds — the pollutants that form ozone. Another 47% of local nitrous oxides and 26% of volatile organic compound emissions come from large industries and other sources such as construction and airport ground equipment and locomotives. Our state can and must address all these sources of ozone precursor pollution, including by adopting effective controls and measures successfully employed by other Western states.
Our neighboring states are working to accelerate the transition to zero-emission vehicles. Colorado adopted a ZEV standard in 2019, Nevada is in the process to put one in place this year and New Mexico plans to do the same by 2022. Utah would do well to take similar action to incentivize and accelerate transportation electrification in our state and make a positive step toward improving our dirty air.
As the Utah Foundation noted in its recent report “Going for the Green: How Utah Can Thrive in a New Climate Economy,” zero- and low-emission vehicles offer a path to decreasing the harmful fossil-fuel emissions that cause climate change and pollute our air, even with more drivers on the road and regardless of whether the electricity used for charging comes from renewables. While transitioning to cleaner sources of electricity would create even greater emissions-reduction benefits, there are clear benefits today.
Many electric vehicle models are already cheaper to operate and maintain than internal combustion vehicles, and market analysts expect that electric vehicles will reach purchase price parity with fossil-fueled vehicles during the mid- to late-2020s. Major auto manufacturers have set targets to sell only zero-emission vehicles in the years ahead and plan to increase the array of makes and models of the electric vehicles they offer. But without a ZEV standard, Utah will have limited retail access to those vehicles, since the manufacturers will not commit to bringing all makes and models of electric vehicles to states without ZEV standards.
Meanwhile, if Salt Lake City wants to be a serious contender for the 2030 Winter Olympics, it will have meet new “climate positive” requirements. The transportation sector accounts for the largest U.S. source of the harmful fossil-fuel emissions that cause climate change, at 29%, according to the EPA. Incentivizing and accelerating greater electric vehicle use would go a long way toward helping Utah reach that “climate positive” standard while also improving our local air quality.
The intensifying effects of climate change are evident in Utah, including record heat and prolonged drought. The ozone pollution along the Wasatch Front is increasing as temperatures grow warmer, and our air pollution poses greater public health risks. Minority and low-income communities located near highways and industrial areas bear disproportionately higher air pollution exposure and its health consequences. Our dirty air also poses economic and recruiting challenges for businesses that otherwise are drawn to our state’s quality of life and beautiful outdoor opportunities.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted in its major new report that some of the devastating impacts of climate change cannot be averted, due to our decades of fossil fuel use. But we still have a small window of time to take steps that will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avoid the worst impacts of climate crisis.
As political leaders including Sen. Mitt Romney and Rep. John Curtis have noted, it’s time for Utah and the nation to come together and develop solutions to address climate change. State policies to help put greater numbers of electric vehicles on our roads would substantially help improve Utah’s air quality and reduce the harmful fossil-fuel emissions that cause climate change.
Aaron Kressig is Western Resource Advocates’ transportation electrification manager and is based in Colorado.
Joro Walker is WRA’s general counsel and lives in Salt Lake City.