The American Lung Association’s 2021 State of the Air Report recently ranked Minnesota’s air quality for the three-year period of 2017 to 2019. In general, our state did pretty well, with grades for ozone and particulate pollution slightly improved in many areas since the previous report. The study also found disparities on who lives in the areas with dirtiest air, and who faces the highest health risks due to air pollution.
The report noted that people of color are 61% more likely than whites to live in a county with a failing grade for at least one pollutant, and more than three times as likely to live in a county with a failing grade for all three pollutants.
In Minnesota, emissions from vehicles represent both the single largest source of air pollution and the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions. For more than 20 years, the American Lung Association has been promoting the use of cleaner-burning fuels and vehicle technologies that help to reduce air pollution in our state.
Our latest effort to reduce vehicle emissions is our participation in the Twin Cities Electric Vehicle Mobility Network, a collaboration between the cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, the nonprofit car-share program HOURCAR, Xcel Energy, and others. This project would establish an electric vehicle car-sharing program in the two cities, as well as electric vehicle charging hubs and community outreach and education. At least half of the planned charging hubs will be in neighborhoods where more than 50% of the residents are Black, indigenous or people of color.
As with other car-sharing programs, this project is for renters and others who do not own a vehicle, but who need the use of one from time to time. It is also for those residents who would like to own an electric vehicle of their own, but do not have the option to recharge in a privately-owned garage.
In addition to the vehicles and charging stations, the project’s community engagement and outreach efforts include partnerships with local community-based organizations that will explain the benefits of electric vehicles and how car-sharing works, as well as identifying and addressing some of the obstacles community members face using this service. As public safety guidelines allow, the project will also include “ride and drives” and other community events.
After a year marked by the pandemic, senseless deaths, and renewed calls for social justice, air pollution may seem like a minor concern. It is not — repeated studies have shown that routing highways and placing industry in low-income communities and communities of color creates inequities in exposure to air pollution and increased rates of the health conditions directly linked to unclean air. We have seen this in Minnesota, and we have seen this across the country as well.
While there is much to be done, providing neighborhood access to shared zero-emission vehicles and expanding the opportunity for more Minnesotans to have a less polluting vehicle of their own is a step forward. We also need good public policy and rulemaking, as well as action from utilities, business, and nonprofits to adopt practices and purchases that protect the air we all share.