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An Electrifying Idea: Cut Carbon from the Port

An Electrifying Idea: Cut Carbon from the Port

Picture of Kari Lydersen

The Clean Trucks program and other innovations at the ports of L.A. and Long Beach have significantly reduced the diesel emissions around the ports, meaning important public health ramifications for the surrounding communities who are at higher risk of respiratory disease, cardiac disease and  cancer because of the particulate matter and smog caused by diesel emissions.

But former deputy mayor, L.A. Board of Harbor Commissioners president and self-proclaimed "Green Cowboy" S. David Freeman pointed out during a visit by reporters with the California Endowment's  National Health Journalism Fellowship July 15 one of the ironies that so often complicate environmental and public health stories and campaigns.

The diesel emissions reductions were achieved by banning old dirty rigs ("Old trucks, don't darken our door," said Freeman); demanding the trucks burn low-sulfur fuel; and installing emission control equipment on port machinery. But while these measures all cut down on the amount of particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants that spew into the air, they do nothing to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted.

In fact, Freeman said, the pollution controls actually increase the carbon dioxide emitted, since they decrease the efficiency of engines (meaning fewer miles per gallon) and necessitate slightly more diesel be burned to do the same amount of work. Hence Freeman's current obsession – cutting carbon from the port, through the electrification of port equipment and ideally even the trucks, ships and trains that operate out of it.

"We need an electric port, we need to get carbon out of the port," he says emphatically.

Carbon dioxide has literally no immediate, localized public health effects for surrounding communities (unless it is emitted in amounts so massive as to displace oxygen and cause people to suffocate to death, as some fear could happen if carbon were sequestered underground and seeped out). So carbon from the port is not likely a pressing concern for the surrounding low income communities who suffer so many health and socioeconomic problems just trying to get through the day.

But carbon dioxide is of course the major driver of climate change. And on a global scale, climate change is already having and will increasingly have massive public health impacts, disproportionately on the world's poorest, most vulnerable citizens. Increasing tropical disease, increased violent storms, rising sea level that displaces whole communities and wipes out food sources, depletion of fisheries thanks to ocean acidification and coral bleaching and epidemics of agricultural pests and fires that destroy food sources are just some of the public health effects that have already been documented and are expected to accelerate with climate change. The world's poorest will be most dramatically affected by these changes, given their geographic location, vulnerability in terms of infrastructure and lack of medical care and lack of other resources to adapt, move and otherwise respond.

I saw the public health, socially disparate effects of climate change first hand recently on a trip to Honduras. The country is suffering a dengue fever epidemic.

While of course any one epidemic can never be specifically linked to climate change, dengue and other mosquito-borne tropical diseases are expected to increase significantly with climate change thanks to hotter weather and increased heavy rains that mean more standing water for mosquitoes to breed. The Garifuna, descendants of slave ships that ship-wrecked centuries ago, living on Honduras' lush Caribbean coast, are considered among the most world's most vulnerable to climate change. I visited a small Garifuna hospital – the only one in the region – where doctor Luther Castillo, several Cuban doctors and a small volunteer medical staff are struggling to meet the needs of literally thousands of patients a day. The Garifuna's dwellings and the coconut palms and garden plots they rely on for sustenance have been pummeled by increasing storm surges from hurricanes in recent years. They've also seen fisheries reduced, another possible effect linked to climate change.

The climate change challenge is so massive, it is understandably hard to feel reducing the carbon emissions of the ports of L.A. and Long Beach or any other specific source will have any benefit at all for communities like the Garifuna thousands of miles away. But climate change will only be curbed if radical energy use and generation changes are made at the ports and the myriad other major greenhouse gas emitters around the planet. Without a strong global agreement on climate change (Copenhagen was widely viewed as a disappointment) or aggressive federal climate change legislation, there is little hard incentive for institutions like the port to cut carbon. Luckily forward-thinkers like Freeman are nonetheless pushing for just this, despite the initial cost.

Ships can already plug in at port rather than idling their diesel engines. The goal is to have enough electric berths so all ships can do this within a decade or two (now about one in five ships plug in). Improvements in battery technology mean it is increasingly realistic to run electric trucks, especially on specified routes that could have charging stations along the way. Electric trains are already common worldwide and completely feasible if not necessarily cost effective in the U.S.

The further irony is that the U.S. currently gets about half its power from coal – including the majority of power in southern California – hence even an electrified port would be causing carbon emissions upstream. But our country could exponentially increase the amount of clean electricity generated by wind and solar, especially in places like southern California. This will just take private and public investment in large-scale wind and solar plants and the transmission lines and industrial batteries needed to transport and store that energy.

"How much is enough?" asked Freeman. "What kind of example are we setting for China and India? There's a lot of green talk but action is hard to come by."
Freeman knows that changing not only the ports' energy sourcing but the country's energy generation balance is a huge undertaking. But like the local residents who were the driving force behind the existing changes at the port, in the face of huge odds, he's up for the challenge.

"Life should be joyous, and that means you need to stand up for something and fight for something. If you're just drifting along, it's like you're working in the wine cellar and not tasting the wine. You miss a lot of joy in life if you don't find a cause or two to stand up for and just fight for it."

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