In Minnesota, the color of your skin and the income you earn can determine the length of your life.
A study conducted by Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Minnesota found that life expectancy is so correlated with income that a price tag can be assigned to a year of life: In Minnesota, for every $10,000 of income a person earns, an extra year is added to their life expectancy. Racial identity is similarly linked to life expectancy, with white residents in Minnesota projected to live nearly 10 years longer than Black residents, and almost 20 years longer than Indigenous residents. Numerous social and economic factors contribute to differences in outcomes, but there is now an opportunity to address one of these disparities — air quality and public health — by getting cleaner cars on Minnesota's roadways.
Across Minnesota, communities of color are much more likely to live in areas of higher pollution. Their homes are closest to high-emission facilities and/or roadways with concentrated medium- and heavy-duty vehicle traffic, which puts hazardous pollutants into the air that Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities breathe on a daily basis. The level of disparity in exposure to these harmful pollutants—especially particulate matter (PM2.5) — is staggering: A recent study showed that the concentrations of PM2.5 in Black and Latinx communities are far above the average — 65% and 28% respectively. In contrast, white communities have exposure levels 9% lower than the state average.
If things are to change for Minnesotans of color, then strong policy efforts are needed to curtail emissions from vehicles, especially criteria pollutants that endanger human health in these vulnerable communities.
That's where Clean Cars Minnesota comes into play. Clean Cars Minnesota is an initiative by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to adopt a set of emissions standards that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other criteria pollutants while expanding consumer choice and access to cleaner vehicles. It represents one of the most comprehensive actions a state can take to curtail vehicle emissions. Clean Cars Minnesota works in two ways: The Low Emission Vehicle (LEV) requirement sets limits on the amount of allowable emissions coming from new passenger vehicles, while the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) requirement would ensure that automakers are offering more electric vehicles to Minnesota consumers. In combination, the two rules are a step toward answering one of Minnesota's longest-standing questions: What will the state do to ensure the health and well-being of Black, Latinx and other communities of color?
Transportation electrification efforts like Clean Cars Minnesota are a good place to start the dialogue. An analysis by the MPCA found that Clean Cars Minnesota could reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from both vehicle tailpipes and upstream electricity production by approximately 8.4 million tons over the first 10 years. Additionally, projected reductions in other major pollutants resulting from this rule — including criteria pollutants like particulate matter — would help lessen the threat of respiratory disease, cancer and developmental defects, all of which Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities suffer from at disparate rates. Quantifying the hardship that these vulnerable communities have shouldered from vehicle pollution is impossible, though the MPCA does estimate that Clean Cars Minnesota could avoid $500 million in climate-related damages.
After a lengthy rule-making process, on May 7 an administrative law judge ruled that the process by which Clean Cars Minnesota was developed conformed to state law and could proceed, removing the final regulatory hurdle to adoption. However, some Republican policymakers in the Legislature are threatening to withhold funding for an environmental omnibus bill if Gov. Tim Walz continues to pursue Clean Cars Minnesota. This pushback not only threatens Clean Cars Minnesota, but also puts the state's parks and other natural resources at risk despite a judge's ruling that found Clean Cars Minnesota to be both reasonable and necessary.
It's important to note that Minnesota is not entering unfamiliar territory with this program; 12 states have already instituted ZEV standards and 14 have instituted LEV standards, with successful outcomes in each. Despite what the pushback would suggest, Clean Cars Minnesota is not doing what's impossible nor what's radical, but simply what's right.
Alexis Blomqvist is a program associate with EVHybridNoire (evhybridnoire.com), the nation's largest network of diverse electric vehicle drivers and enthusiasts. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.