color photograph of a blue diesel truck driving towards the camera near an industrial facility
OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 31: Trucks drive through the Port of Oakland on March 31, 2023, in Oakland, California. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it will allow California's plan to phase out a variety of diesel-powered trucks in the state and require truck manufacturers to sell more zero-emission electric trucks. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) has voted to approve the Advanced Clean Fleets (ACF) regulation, a world-first rule that bans the sale of new combustion trucks in California by 2036. The ACF is part of CARB’s larger strategy to accelerate the large-scale transition to zero-emission medium- and heavy-duty vehicles and makes progress toward Gov. Gavin Newsom’s goals to drastically cut pollution and protect public health. 

When Bradley Angel first heard the news, he described it as “precedent setting.” As a California resident and the co-founder and executive director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, Angel has been working for more than 35 years with communities suffering from pollution-related health problems stemming from racism and environmental injustice.

“This is a victory that has come about due to the hard work of so many community environmental justice groups and with the support of the government air quality agencies,” Angel said. “It’s a victory for people’s health and justice.”

The new rule contains manufacturer-focused requirements and fleet-focused requirements for state, local, federal, and last-mile delivery vehicles. According to the timeline, drayage trucks like big rigs, local delivery vehicles, and government fleets must transition by 2035, garbage trucks by 2039, and all other vehicles covered by the regulation by 2042. Numerous flexibilities, such as exemptions, extensions, and a phase-in period of two decades, seek to take into account the available technology and enable controlling companies to comply with the rule, all with the goal of providing an overall smooth transition. 

The passage is a companion to the 2020 Advanced Clean Trucks rule, which first delineated a timeline for the transition to zero-emissions truck sales and has been adopted by numerous states, including New Jersey, New York, Washington, Oregon, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Colorado. 

As greenhouse gas emissions are severely reduced, the new regulation will have environmental, health, and economic implications. With California leading the way, it’ll be up to other states to reinforce or renounce a zero-emissions standard.

In 2021, transportation produced 28% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.—the largest share of any economic sector. In California, while trucks only represent 6% of its vehicles, they account for more than 35% of the state’s transportation-related nitrogen oxide emissions and 25% of the state’s on-the-road greenhouse gas emissions. Of the 1.8 million medium- and heavy-duty trucks that operate daily in California, the ACF will target the 532,000 highest-polluting ones to effectively cut emissions and slow global warming. 

The new regulation will also affect public health, especially for communities that have historically been neglected in decisions about their well-being. According to a 2021 study by the American Geophysical Union, low-income neighborhoods and communities of color are exposed to 28% more nitrogen dioxide pollution than their wealthier, white counterparts; this is because industrial facilities disproportionately target poor areas that have less political power and fewer resources to fight back, found a 2015 study by researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Montana. In terms of health, long-term exposure to diesel exhaust can increase a person’s risk for asthma, lung disease, cancer, and other respiratory illnesses. 

In their role as the clean port advocate with the Environmental Health Coalition, Meli Morales primarily focuses on land use and air quality issues impacting communities with the highest pollution burden in the San Diego region. On any given day, they speak to residents, work on campaigns, and support the mobilization of these communities against unjust environmental conditions.

“The people most at risk are those who live near ports and freight corridors,” said Morales. “Those are the ‘diesel death zones’ where the air is most damaging to lung health. Diesel trucks are responsible for a majority of the most harmful pollution faced by these communities.”

Sitting at the junction between Interstate 5 and Highway 41 as he recalls his experiences, Miguel Alatorre Jr. can see large semi-trucks on both sides of him. Alatorre has been a lifelong resident of Kettleman City, a census-designated region of Kings County about 50 miles south of Fresno, California. The residents are a tight-knit group of 1,500 people, about 95% of whom identify as Latinx. As a third-generation environmental advocate, he understands the injustices his community faces. 

According to Alatorre, Kettleman City is divided by Highway 41, which has been a detriment to the community. Its proximity to two major roadways means that thousands of trucks pass through daily, and FedEx and XPO facilities were approved for construction within feet of residents’ houses. Kettleman City is also home to freight transportation locations, distribution centers, and a giant hazardous waste landfill. According to Alatorre, the traffic only grows each year as people consume more and shipping demands increase. 

While it’s difficult to correlate environmental burdens directly with health outcomes, Alatorre personally knows many neighbors who suffer from asthma, bronchial infections, seasonal allergies, and different types of cancers. 

Because Kettleman City is an unincorporated municipality, there is little governance in their system to help fight unwanted projects relating to shipping and waste. As a consequence, Kettleman City must “bear the brunt” of receiving these high-polluting, unappealing industrial sites.

To enact change, he believes it’s important to share with plant managers and business owners the firsthand experiences of communities that are being affected by the diesel truck pollution. 

“We don’t want our kids who go to school across the street from these facilities to suffer from this … And so we definitely want to work with [trucking companies] and [make] sure that they remember that there’s real human beings that live next to these facilities that are getting affected,” he said. 

To Morales, the discourse surrounding environmental justice is invaluable.

“There’s something especially abhorrent about the way the people most destabilized by racial capitalism are the ones who have to fight for environmental justice outcomes that primarily benefit others,” they said. “I think there is a very important conversation happening in EJ spaces right now about disability justice and what it looks like for the fight itself to become sustainable.”

The ACF passage will also economically benefit the U.S. in the long term. The rule is expected to generate $26.6 billion in health savings from pollution-related illness, and fleet owners will save an estimated $48 billion from reduced fuel costs and lower maintenance expenses.

Following the announcement, the American Trucking Association criticized the ACF in a statement, claiming the infrastructure to achieve the zero-emissions goals is “nonexistent” and that California’s “unrealistic targets” will lead to a surge in prices for goods and services. 

Yasmine Agelidis, a senior associate attorney at nonprofit environmental law organization Earthjustice, anticipates there will be challenges along the way. However, she believes the timing is right for a successful transition.

“There’s always a question when there’s a big shift—whether it’s possible, whether the technology can meet the moment,” Agelidis said. “But if we just look at different studies, all the technology announcements that we’ve had recently, and the flexibilities that are included in the rule to account for some of those uncertainties, I feel very confident in this rule being a great success.”

CARB estimates that approximately 1.7 million zero-emission trucks will be on California roads by 2050. 

“I feel very encouraged and excited about the direction that our state is moving in,” Agelidis said. “There’s still work to be done. [But] we’re all committed to working together to make sure we can clean up the trucks that weren’t included in the rule and make sure that this transition happens in a way that’s equitable and works for everyone.”

Lily Levine (she/her) is a reporter based in Los Angeles and New York. During her time at the University of Chicago, she covered the intersection between health, education, environmental justice, and racial...