California battled air pollution and won. To do it, the state used these weapons: new technologies, state and local laws, and economic incentives for residents and businesses.

Today California is a model for governments in the U.S. and around the world that live with polluted air. Its story is one of local action solving problems more nimbly than national policies have.

As the city of Los Angeles expanded after World War II and the number of people, motor vehicles and factories increased, it became hard for its residents to breathe. Eyes smarted. Lungs burned. People became sick. It wasn’t just Los Angeles. Smog crept into California’s Central Valley and up and down the coastline, surrounding other cities and suburbs.

One of the first moves by the city was to ban the open incineration of trash, once common in every backyard. As new automobile technologies were developed, catalytic converters and lead-free fuel for cars were mandated by the state. Air-quality standards were first set in 1959, and localities started to monitor air quality and report it to residents in cities across the state.

Even in 1958, Los Angeles had frequent smoggy days. (© AP Images)

That raised citizens’ awareness. Regular “red alert” days — when kids can’t play outside, strenuous outdoor activity is discouraged for all, and the elderly are advised to stay inside — led residents to advocate for clean-air policies. As people learned more about air pollution and its health effects, officials revised air-quality standards and introduced more measures to curb pollution. From the 1960s forward, stricter vehicle emissions standards, emissions testing, better anti-smog devices and fuels for cars improved air quality.

Twenty-first-century technology made renewable energy and greener construction practices feasible. Federal and state tax rebates for environmentally friendly commercial and residential construction, solar power installations, and hybrid or electric vehicles have been successful incentives. Although serious air pollution issues remain — ground-level ozone is still high — today LA’s air is cleaner and people are healthier.

Today LA’s air quality is much improved, and the view of the nearby San Gabriel Mountains is clear. (© AP Images)

A healthy bottom line

V. Ramanathan, who heads the Center for Atmospheric Sciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, recently told clean-energy planners from India and the U.S. that from 1990 to 2010 California’s emissions increased by only 4 percent because of policies to decarbonize. Meanwhile, he said, population increased by 30 percent and GDP grew by 54 percent.

“It blows away all the arguments you hear from skeptics, that decarbonization is going to ruin your economy. California says no … the economy grew” — by 100,000 jobs, he said.

Model for the country and the world

“California has a special status,” said Health Effects Institute’s Rashid Shaikh. It is able to coordinate levels of government, from local to national, and has helped shape effective policies nationally — because California’s policies work. Shaikh cited evidence from recent studies that decreased air pollution resulting from clean diesel technologies improved health in the worst-affected neighborhoods.

Source: Next 10 California Green Innovation Index. Data from California Energy Commission and U.S. Energy Information Administration. Analysis by Collaborative Economics.

Next 10, founded by venture capitalist F. Noel Perry to focus on “the intersection between the economy, the environment and quality of life,” provides data that inspires further action. Its 2015 Green Innovation Index, in comparing California to countries that are the top greenhouse-gas emitters, ranks the state in the top 10 for its use of sustainable energy and second-from-lowest for carbon emissions.

And the California Air Resources Board, in its most recent greenhouse gas emissions inventory, shows the state is on track to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

Looking ahead

Matt Petersen is LA’s chief sustainability officer. (Courtesy photo)

While the city of LA and the state of California can be proud of their progress, LA’s air quality remains the worst in the U.S. Still, Matt Petersen, the city’s chief sustainability officer, is optimistic. He plans to use the newest technology to further clean up vehicle exhaust, energy sources, building construction and behaviors. And the goals in LA’s 2015 sustainable city plan include the elimination of coal use entirely and a 50-percent increase in zero-emissions vehicles by the year 2025.

Petersen, who previously was chief executive of Global Green USA, has traveled worldwide to share lessons learned by California. He advises neighborhoods to partner with other local jurisdictions, with businesses and with nongovernmental organizations to clean the air. When asked what quickly improves air quality, he cites these solutions:

  • Eliminate inefficient two-stroke engines — like lawnmowers and leaf blowers.
  • Replace dirty diesel trucks with cleaner-burning engines.
  • Impose traffic restrictions on bad smog days.
  • Monitor air quality and inform the public about it.

As California officials collaborate with other countries — including Canada, China, India and Mexico — on environmental challenges, they make the case that environmental policies attract entrepreneurs and investors. And that brings new jobs and air that is better to breathe.