Electrifying Medium and Heavy-Duty Vehicles: A Critical Step Towards Environmental Justice in North Carolina

As the impacts of climate change reveal themselves to North Carolinians in the form of heat, flooding, wildfires, drought, and increasingly intense and more frequent tropical storms, the case for urgent action to combat climate change is strengthening. Our state has made important strides, setting vehicle electrification goals and power sector emissions reductions directives, but new data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows that levels of greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere continued a steady climb in 2023, nonetheless, underscoring that our efforts to reduce emissions from all sources must be tackled with urgency.

One significant source of emissions — medium and heavy-duty vehicles (MHDV) like trucks and buses — is an area of important focus. We know from a 2022 study that, despite constituting only 6.5% of on-road vehicles in North Carolina, MHDVs are responsible for a staggering 34.5% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions within the transportation sector. Adopting clean transportation policies for MHDVs can make a big difference toward reaching the state’s climate goals and could have a positive impact on North Carolina’s economy — netting nearly $118 billion in health, climate and economic savings over a 25-year period.

And now, in a new analysis, we have further knowledge to inform MHDV policies in the state. Beyond the environmental perspective, there is the human impact that we’ve suspected was significant, and now have data to confirm a disproportionate health burden on marginalized North Carolina communities. This new analysis takes a closer look at localized impacts, examining the communities most affected by MHDV emissions, and exploring the potential health benefits of implementing strong policies to reduce pollution from this sector.

Key Findings: Reducing pollution and health burdens

The study results were clear: significant, policy-driven reductions in MHDV pollution would result in substantial reductions in overall pollution, alleviating health burdens within socially vulnerable communities across much of North Carolina. By 2050, the analysis projected a 61% reduction in NOx and a 73% reduction in PM2.5 — meaningful reductions that could result in meaningful human health improvements.

Communities located near major transportation routes where trucks and buses travel are the ones that stand to see the biggest benefits from reductions in MHDV pollution. The analysis showed that these communities would benefit from 42% of the statewide emissions reductions projected in the study, helping make headway toward alleviating a long-held, unfair, and unfortunate burden for North Carolinians who have for generations been most disproportionately affected and burdened by this type of vehicle pollution.

The tangible implications of significant MHDV pollution reductions might be seen in the form of reduced mortality rates and hospitalizations associated with respiratory illnesses. Building upon the first study, which showed a relationship between NOx and respiratory health issues, the maps below (found on page 37 in the new analysis) further suggest that tailpipe emissions, especially in the Raleigh, Durham, and Smithfield focus areas, correlate to higher rates of asthma-related emergency department visits.

 Reduced pollution leads to improved health, which leads to an overall improved quality of life for folks in these communities. Healthier children means fewer missed school days, which means moms and dads miss fewer work days. For hourly wage-earners, this means fewer missed paychecks which can lead to happier, healthier North Carolina families.

Power sector emissions and the bigger picture

This analysis shows that implementing policies that would increase the number of electric MHDVs would result in negligible changes in power sector emissions. And, if any incremental potential increases in emissions from the power sector were seen at all, they would be dramatically outweighed by the substantial decreases in emissions we would experience as a result of having additional clean, electric MHDVs on North Carolina roadways.

This does, however, highlight yet another benefit of the state’s transition to a cleaner electric power system. North Carolina surpassed its goal — two years ahead of schedule — for achieving 80,000 passenger electric vehicle registrations. Even more fleets and MHDVs will become electric in the coming years. The sooner North Carolina cleans up the power system with clean, renewable energy sources — the greater pollution reductions North Carolinians will realize. It’s critical for the NC Utilities Commission to hold Duke Energy accountable for achieving a strong Carbon Plan that meets the timeline and milestones set by House Bill 951: 70% reduction from 2005 levels by 2030 and net-zero by 2050. Similar to the transportation sector, those who live in marginalized communities are often the closest neighbors to power plants and are disproportionately exposed to that pollution source, too, making the case for the all-sector approach essential.

Paving the way for a cleaner and more equitable future

The electrification of medium and heavy-duty vehicles in North Carolina is not only a crucial element in the state’s emissions reduction strategy, but also a vital step toward correcting generations-old environmental injustices. And this new analysis underscores that the more we can decrease MHDV pollution, the more we can improve the air quality issues and health burdens disproportionately borne by marginalized communities.

As we seek policy solutions to address these injustices, it is critical that engaging the impacted communities be at the heart of any further analysis and solution development. Our fellow North Carolinians who live in these communities have invaluable first-hand insights that are critical to finding the solutions that will best meet their needs and the needs of the community.

We have the tools to reduce MHDV pollution and, particularly when we consider additional benefits not accounted for in this analysis from the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) and other funding made available through the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), there is meaningful progress we can make toward creating a clean, healthy, and equitable future for all North Carolinians.

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