The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the two busiest container ports in the U.S., are leading the way on emissions and pollution reduction, according to new reports.
The successful emission reductions come after a long history of pollution concerns — the Los Angeles and Long Beach port system is the single largest fixed source of air pollution in Southern California. The Lung Association has produced the annual “State of the Air” report for 20 years, and for 19 of them, the LA-LB port system has ranked as the worst area in the nation for ozone pollution.
Pollutants, particularly diesel particulate and nitrogen oxide, pose potential health risks to area residents who breathe the smog on a daily basis. In response, harbor commissioners took action to reduce emissions.
Setting Lofty Goals
A joint committee of harbor commissioners from the two ports voted in 2017 to update their Clean Air Action Plan. The ambitious plan seeks to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, and transition to zero-emission cargo-handling equipment by 2030.
One key component of the action plan is the Clean Trucks Program, which aims to phase out diesel trucks and other high-emissions vehicles by prohibiting truck models older than 2014 from entering the ports.
Projections for the Clean Trucks Program indicate that by 2024, most of the 17,000 trucks serving the ports will be near-zero emissions vehicles, with zero-emission trucks becoming the majority by 2036.
Reports released in September 2019 show that the Port of Los Angeles has already met or exceeded its 2023 goals for the reduction of health-risk pollutants, while the Port of Long Beach met its reduction goals for all but one pollutant.
The Port of Los Angeles’s 2018 Inventory of Air Emissions report notes an 87% decrease in diesel particulate matter, 60% decrease in nitrogen oxides, and 98% decrease in sulfur oxides, when compared to the 2005 baseline.
The Port of Long Beach reported similar results, but fell just short of 2023 goal for nitrogen oxide (56% reduction compared to the 59% reduction goal). Still, both ports are ahead of schedule for emissions reduction.
Technology Is Evolving
Goals for clean-air trucking were set in anticipation of new natural gas and electric trucks becoming available from manufacturers.
By implementing the Clean Air Action Plan, port officials hoped that increasing demand would push truck manufacturers to accelerate the development of low- and zero-emission vehicles, making them more commercially available — and more affordable — for more companies.
This strategy appears to be working, to an extent. Many manufacturers either already have or are currently developing Class 8 electric vehicles, including Tesla, Volvo, Navistar and Paccar, and these electric vehicles are expected to drive future growth in the trucking industry. However, challenges remain, including issues with weight, range and charging.
Natural gas trucks have seen even more manufacturing progress, but it’s unclear whether switching to natural gas would hold long-term benefits.
As a 2015 analysis by the American Chemical Society explains, the combustion of natural gas produces less carbon dioxide than diesel, but current processes for obtaining natural gas result in significant methane emissions, calling into question the long-term environmental impact of natural gas trucks. Regardless, truck manufacturers continue to examine possibilities for reducing emissions with natural gas combustion engines.
Both electric and natural gas trucks represent important technological advances that will ultimately assist the LA-LB port system in reducing harmful emissions. A recent feasibility assessment suggests that if the development of zero-emission vehicles continues as projected, they will become widely available on a feasible timeline to help the ports achieve the goals set forth by the Clean Air Action Plan.