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How Los Angeles tackled its pollution problem

Published: 8 May 2019

What can local government do in the face of some of the world’s great environmental challenges, from air pollution to climate change? Stephen Cheung, a former aide to two Los Angeles mayors, says his city’s story shows the solutions to some of our biggest global problems start local.

Stephen Cheung remembers when Los Angeles was the smog capital of the US. Many mornings, its residents would open their windows and gaze out into a thick cloud of pollution. When he started work as an aide to the city’s former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the air quality was known to be a contributing factor in health issues from minor respiratory illnesses to asthma attacks. Angelenos were paying for their atmosphere in the form of discomfort and doctors’ bills.

Though still far from perfect, the air in Los Angeles today is cleaner than in many cities its size. To Cheung, the story of that change is a template for how cities can take on some of the toughest environmental challenges facing them. Every breath he takes in LA these days is a testament to what he sees as the surprisingly transformational power of good local government.

“We’ve seen what happens when the environmental regulations are not there. We know what it’s like not to be able to see anything but orange haze,” he says. “Now the younger generation don’t even remember any of that. Good. They shouldn’t have to.”

 

Lessons from the LA's ports

When Cheung started looking at how to make environmental and air quality improvements under Mayor Villaraigosa more than 10 years ago, he looked to the city’s twin ports. The Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach process more than 40 per cent of the cargo coming into the United States by sea, utilising thousands of trucks, ships, and trains.

“The pollution coming out of there was just enormous,” he says. “What’s more the transport routes out of [the ports] usually go through lower income neighbourhoods. So we were essentially poisoning our poorer communities.”

The Villaraigosa administration homed in on the pollution from the ports when it implemented a Clean Air Action Plan for Los Angeles in 2008. Facing down opposition from entrenched interests, Cheung and others backed a new Clean Truck Program under the Plan. It required the ports to replace 14,000 dirty diesel-burning trucks with Environmental Protection Agency-approved vehicles over five years. And it was wildly successful, reducing air pollution from trucks in and out of the ports by more than 90 percent.

Win-win for business and the environment

To Cheung, that’s an example of how local government can effect meaningful change by creating policy that is essentially a win-win: incentivising businesses to make sound long-term investments while alleviating some of their worst environmental impacts.

“Sometimes the status quo is what people want because they’ve found a way to make the market work for them. But what they don’t realise is when you improve the infrastructure you also improve the efficiency, and later on it saves them money,” he says. “It has to be a public-private partnership. We’ve seen with the right leadership, with the right public policy standards and the right incentives, it creates a mechanism where the private sector can create a market that incentivises sustainability.”

Cheung went on work in the administration of current Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti and is now Executive Vice President of Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, where he remains committed to cultivating sustainable businesses. His work has put him in conflict with the policies of the Trump administration, which has pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement and repeatedly played down the threat posed by climate change. But he refuses to be discouraged, if only because he has seen that impactful change can take place on a local level.

“When you look at the work itself, federal government doesn't control the day-to-day operation of the Port of Los Angeles or the Port of Long Beach,” he says. “Without them, that doesn’t mean we have to stand idly by and go back to the 1920s. We’re not going to go back to being the smog capital of the United States.”

Cheung will join speakers in the 2019 Innovation Showcase on 20 May, part of the Tripartite Economic Alliance meeting between Auckland, Los Angeles and Guangzhou, and of Techweek19 (20-26 May). He will also present an Auckland Conversations event – Shared Prosperity: Taking advantage of Auckland's economic growth – on Tuesday 21 May, 5pm-7pm at Shed 10, Queens Wharf.

Story: Hayden Donnell

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