Commentary: Next step for cleaner air for climate, ourselves

A clean-fuels standard can lower transportation emissions that add to climate change and poor health.

By Mark Vossler and Doug Santoni / For The Herald

Washington state’s natural systems and environment are incredibly beautiful and complex. Our state is a vibrant ecosystem of people, diverse landscapes and vast wildlife populations including skies full of native and migratory birds.

But the climate crisis — with increasingly severe wildfires, sea-level rise, and extreme heat — is a clear and present danger to all who call our state home. By reducing our reliance on polluting fossil fuels, we can protect our natural systems and resident species, improve human health and support needed action to protect our climate.

As leaders of advocacy organizations for human health and birdlife respectively, we are dedicated to confronting the threat of climate change head-on. And we are fortunate to live in a state demonstrating real climate leadership. We burn fewer fossil fuels than other states, have a governor who sees climate action as a necessity, and just last year passed one of the strongest 100 percent clean electricity policies on the books.

However, progress in our transportation sector is lagging and accounts for approximately 40 percent of our state’s carbon dioxide emissions. This month, we have an important opportunity to take action for clean transportation. The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency is currently working to reduce emissions and clean up our air with a Clean Fuel Standard, a policy that requires cleaner burning gasoline and diesel fuel for the Puget Sound region.

We see how air pollution and the climate crisis harm patients. The two are deeply connected. Research shows us that taking action to reduce our fossil fuel use can yield major benefits: improving public health by reducing harmful particulate matter pollution and reducing carbon intensity by up to 26 percent by 2030, lessening our contributions to the climate crisis in the process.

We are deeply worried about the future of our feathered friends, in Washington state, nationally and globally. The National Audubon Society released a report in October showing that two-thirds of North American birds are at risk of extinction if we continue our current climate pollution levels. But it also offered a ray of hope: By taking action we can limit the impacts, leaving 76 percent of birds better off.

What’s more, when we take action to limit climate changing emissions, we’re also curtailing particulate pollution and cleaning up the air for all species. Breathing particulate matter from burning gasoline and diesel has been shown to have impacts on humans that include heart attack and stroke, respiratory distress, elevated stress levels, immunosuppression, behavioral changes, and impaired reproductive success. Air pollution has also been linked to severe impacts to birds including declines in population density, species diversity and species richness.

Cleaner transportation fuels will ensure birds, humans and our ecosystems see clearer, cleaner air. In fact, we’re the only West Coast jurisdiction without this key tool for reducing transportation emissions. In California, the clean fuel standard has contributed to significant health cost savings, reducing asthma exacerbations, hospitalizations and missed days of work due to respiratory distress. Oregon and British Columbia also have successful, working clean fuel standards in place.

We are already paying in health costs to address respiratory diseases and other health ailments exacerbated by particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and other toxic pollutants emitted by vehicles. Leading health organizations in Washington, including the Washington State Medical Association and the Washington Academy of Family Physicians, support a clean fuel standard. PSCAA researchers found that a regional clean fuel standard would result in $45 million of savings from avoided mortality. Authors acknowledged this number is conservative; the true benefits are likely even greater.

Ultimately having a clean fuels standard will also catalyze investments in the cleanest and lowest emission transportation fuel: electricity. The clean fuels standard provides revenue for essential vehicle charging infrastructure and support for lower income-residents to have access to clean transportation technology.

With this in mind, for the health of our communities, our environment and birds, we hope that PSCAA (and ultimately, the Washington state Legislature) will move forward on the clean fuel standard.

Dr. Mark Vossler, a cardiologist, is president of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility. Doug Santoni is chairman of Audubon Washington’s Board of Directors and is a consultant and retired travel industry executive.

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