Exploring the Fourth Wave of Environmental Innovation
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April 22, 2020

Earth Day in the time of COVID-19 is more urgent than it has ever been. And though my Innovation and the Environment newsletter is on temporary pause right now, I wanted share a thought on this 50thanniversary of Earth Day. Let’s see to it that the worst of times bring out the best in us, and that as we move from relief to recovery, we do so in a way that rebuilds smarter — beginning with the air we breathe.

This crisis has led to clearer skies in cities around the world, but in a way nobody would ever want. Let’s do it the right way now.

One key is to clean up short-haul trucking.

Home delivery has been a lifeline for people in self-isolation, but it contributes to the air pollution that puts us at greater risk. Globally, air pollution from transportation accounts for some 385,000 premature deaths each year; on-road diesel vehicles account for half of these. The best way to start changing that is to electrify commercial short-haul fleets and operators in key ports and cities.

Electric vehicle technology for these trucks is market-ready. Cities and states should enact congestion pricing and zero emission zones, and put people to work building charging infrastructure. Leading fleets and major freight shippers should begin fleet conversion — and get federal incentives for doing so.

The big banks should step up with financing that lets shippers lower the cost of electrification by leveraging the operational savings these vehicles offer. All of this will increase demand for electric trucks, reducing cost and speeding deployment.

Most critical of all will be smart policies to jumpstart this market. California is poised to lead the nation here because it has good ones in place and others under consideration. Other states should get in the game.

As Congress crafts economic recovery legislation, it should enact job creation measures that also clean up our air. Rapid electrification of public transportation systems can help turn skies blue, so Congress should direct federal funds to cities that are electrifying buses and trucks. And because you can’t manage what you don’t measure, we need federal funding to expand local air pollution monitoring around the country.

Fifty years ago, I helped organize a program for the first Earth Day at my high school in Verona, New Jersey. At that time the nation was on a disastrous environmental path. Today, conditions for human health are vastly better and millions of lives have been saved. The environmental progress over the last half century, guided by science and accelerated by technological innovation, gives me hope for the future.

Together we will continue to meet the challenges of the moment and find the ways that work. We have no choice but to succeed.

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