Zero Diesel: A Pathway to Environmental Justice and Climate Sanity

TL;DR: Diesel is bad. I'm proposing a campaign called Zero Diesel with two differentiators: 1) a focus on network effects: attempting to increase the network benefits of electric vehicles and decrease the network benefits of diesel, region by region, and 2) organizing parents of asthmatic children (with a focus on poor people of colour) to use people power to force companies and government agencies to pay the costs of electrification. When necessary, we'll engage in antagonistic action (e.g. boycotts and direct action such as blockades and interference with business as usual).

Why: Diesel is a Climate and EJ (Environmental Justice) Villain

After four decades of the Clean Air Act and the EPA, we still have 200,000 premature deaths a year in the US due to air pollution (7 million worldwide), as well as a staggering load of asthma and other health issues. One of the biggest culprits is diesel combustion, which is an outsize contributor to smog formation as well as the production of PM2.5 — fine particulate matter below 2.5 microns in size. This is absolutely tiny — by comparison, an average human hair is 70 microns in diameter. High levels of PM2.5 are linked to hospital admissions and death as well as the aggravation of asthma and other respiratory problems.

This pollution is not evenly distributed, of course. The residents of areas heavily impacted by air pollution tend to have more melanin and less money. So we end up with a situation where poor children of colour are disproportionately afflicted with asthma, leading to obesity, emergency room visits, and missed school days — a cascading series of impairments on an already vulnerable population.

In addition, diesel is particularly bad for climate pollution. While it is better than gasoline in terms of CO2, it produces a lot of black carbon — one of the worst short-term contributors to global warming.

Climate and Electric Vehicles

In order to drastically reduce our emissions of the heat-trapping gases that cause climate change ("greenhouse gases"), we have to do two things: 1) electrify everything and 2) switch to clean sources of electricity. I think that #2 is actually easier than #1 — it's easier to change a few tens of thousands of power plants than hundreds of millions of cars — and in fact #2 is well under way, due in part to financial considerations and in part to a massive grassroots movement against fossil fuels. That’s not to say that we don't need to continue to organize and force the transition to clean energy; the market is headed in the right direction, but it won't be fast enough on its own. But #1 is the weaker point right now.

In particular, the installed plant of over one billion automobiles worldwide poses a formidable obstacle to weaning ourselves from fossil fuels for transportation. A push for mass transit will help, but personal automobiles as well as trucks and commercial vehicles of many kinds are likely to continue to be needed for decades at least. While electric and hybrid vehicles are finally doing well in the market, they are still a small percentage of vehicles sold and a minuscule fraction of actively used vehicles. Part of the issue is that there are strong network effects: the charging network for electric vehicles (EVs) is still in its infancy while the refueling network for liquid fossil fuels is pervasive and standardized. At this juncture we need extra-market forces to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles.

Target: Diesel-powered Vehicles

We can clean the air and help push the transition to EVs by first focusing on diesel vehicles, almost all of which are commercial and government vehicles. Electric buses, vans, and trucks exist, as well as market solutions to retrofit existing commercial vehicles with electric powertrains. Commercial institutions are, almost by definition, consummate market actors, and are more likely to take advantage of long-term savings from an initial outlay of capital than individuals, in part due to greater access to capital. Financing has played a big role in the rapid adoption of distributed solar power, and we can help facilitate the financing of installing such retrofits and purchasing (initially) more expensive electric vehicles by analyzing the economics, standardizing the terms, and bringing together sympathetic financial institutions with fleet owners.

Zero Diesel will identify fleet owners to pressure into electrifying their fleet, based on how easily electrification is for them operationally and financially, how great their local health impact is, how easily we can mobilize and apply pressure, and how well the target's conversion creates positive network effects that reduce costs and increase benefits for future conversions by other organizations. It is valuable to provide a signal to the market of steady EV purchases and conversions in the near future, so agreements could be structured so that an agency would purchase or convert vehicles on a defined schedule.

One key class of fleet owners is transit agencies, which as public entities are supposed to be responsive to their riders as well as the public at large, and are vulnerable to boycotts and other direct action. We can also lobby regulators to limit diesel vehicles in various ways and to require electric charging infrastructure at bus terminals and fleet parking lots.

Other possible targets

In certain circumstances, it may be advantageous to go after other sources of diesel combustion, demanding that (for instance) shipping docks and construction sites be fully electrified. However, the most important focus is on the vehicle fleet because of their ubiquity and network effects.

As the Zero Diesel campaign progresses and more and more diesel vehicles are converted in a given area, we can increase the pressure on existing users of diesel by shutting down sources of diesel supply.

People Power

Friendly, cooperative action is likely to get us only so far. In some cases, it may be economic to convert to electric, and facilitating financing will go a long way. In many cases, however, the economics may not pan out by themselves, and regulations that we get passed may be challenged in court. We'll need to make sure that we have a large force of people power to a) draw attention to the issues, b) shape the narrative, c) lobby elected officials, and d) engage in action to damage the economic interests of businesses who refuse to cooperate. Such actions could include boycotts of consumer businesses as well as direct action to interfere with regular business operations, by, for instance, blockading diesel-powered trucks.

To do this, we should organize the people most directly affected by diesel pollution. A big constituency that, to my knowledge, has never been organized is the parents of children with asthma (not to mention the children, teens, and adults with asthma themselves). One avenue is to build relationships with nurses, doctors, and teachers and ask them to inform the families of children who suffer from asthma about Zero Diesel.

Part of the goal of Zero Diesel is, in and of itself, to increase the organized power and self-determination of this particular group of people who disproportionately bear the burden of our industrial economy.

Other constituencies to target for organizing are other (non-asthmatic) residents of disproportionately impacted areas — those like West Oakland that already experience very high levels of air pollution. For various "people power" actions, we will work with the broader climate movement. We should also consider likely allies such as nurses' unions and the American Lung Association.

Other allies

Another set of allies are the electric utilities. It is likely that in the next few years the growth of distributed generation (rooftop solar and the like) will increasingly hurt their profits. One of the few things that can improve their bottom line is the increased use of EVs. They could be a great help in lobbying regulators, and might be willing to subsidize the beginnings of a regional EV charging network.

And, of course, natural allies include makers of EVs and electric powertrain retrofit systems, as well as banks and other possible financiers.


Faced with pressure to electrify vehicles, targets are likely to attempt to go for less difficult alternatives, like hybrid vehicles, more efficient engines, or filters that reduce PM2.5 pollution. It is important when faced with those counter-proposals to remember the slogan "better isn’t good enough". The reductions we need to meet our climate goals are so aggressive that we can’t improve the status quo — we need to force a shift to an entirely new technology. That's why we're doing this.

Another alternative that might be offered is that of biodiesel. It is important to remember that "biodiesel is still diesel". While biodiesel produces somewhat less PM2.5 than regular diesel, it still produces a lot. Furthermore, biodiesel and all other biofuels are not scalable. Solar power is so much more efficient than biofuels, it's not even funny. We’re talking 100 or more times more energy per land area. We are trying to get to an all-electric world, and we must avoid the temptation to take shortcuts.

Timeframe and Goals

We want to push the transition to EVs as fast as possible. Given the growing climate movement; the steadily improving economics of EVs, battery technology, and clean power; and the network effects of regional and national EV adoption, I think it's a feasible but difficult goal that within five (5) years (that is, by January 1st, 2020):

  • no one in the Bay Area will purchase new diesel vehicles,
  • sales of diesel fuel in the Bay Area will be at 20% of 2014 levels or less, and
  • we act to minimize — and don't count toward our 20% goal — leakage to gasoline-, biofuel-, or natural gas-powered vehicles.

What form will Zero Diesel take?

This for me is the big question and I hope you, my readers, can contribute your thoughts. There are a number of ways this can proceed. I am writing this from the perspective of the Bay Area, but am willing to think about and work at many different scales.

A paid, full-time organizer is needed

First of all, I strongly believe that the key sub-project of organizing the parents of children with asthma requires a paid, full-time organizer in a given area. The Bay Area grassroots climate movement, working in conjunction with many non-profits, has accomplished amazing things, but the active core skews white, middle-class, and older (retired and semi-retired). We want someone who has experience doing community organizing, particularly in communities of colour. It is highly preferable that that organizer themselves be a person of colour.

Some of the other work, such as research, communication, and building relationships with elected officials, companies, and government agencies, may be able to be carried out by part-time, grassroots volunteers. It is likely that we'd need at least one other person who works effectively half-time on Zero Diesel, whether paid or not.

Geographic scope

To start with, I imagine this as a Bay Area campaign, with an initial focus on 2 or 3 heavily impacted areas such as West Oakland, east and southeast San Francisco, Concord, or Pittsburg. The campaign could spread the way the "350" idea has spread, with independent adoption across the country and world. Alternatively, the Zero Diesel campaign could spread by deliberate growth undertaken by whatever organization runs the campaign (either an existing or new organization, see below). A third, harder option, is to immediately start the campaign in multiple regions at once, again either as a new organization or as a campaign at an existing organization.

Organizational form

Some possible organizational forms:
  1. Create a new, independent non-profit in the Bay Area to hire the full-time organizer and run the campaign.
  2. Create a new national NGO with individual community organizers in key regions around the country. This is similar to #1 but starts off big and distributed.
  3. Within an existing NGO, assign or hire at least one staff person dedicated to Zero Diesel. This could be a local, regional, or national/international NGO; if large, each local area that engages in this campaign should have its own, fully-funded community organizer.
  4. Create a new campaign within 350 Bay Area. This would be a significant change for 350BA because it would require fundraising, hiring, and some mechanisms of supervision. If widely replicated across the country, this could be supported by coordination and media from 350.org.

I'd prefer not to rely on foundations for funding; if we start out with one region and one full-time organizer, whatever the form, I'm confident that I can personally raise the funds for the first year. If we go with #2, obviously that requires more money, more thinking and planning, and more organizational infrastructure.


What are your thoughts on the overall idea, the strategy, and the possible organizational forms?

What other organizations are out there that do work similar to this or would be good candidates for form #3?

What organizations should I be talking to to understand more about this problem space?

If Zero Diesel were to be an independent non-profit, would you consider being on its board?

Thanks for your time and feedback — please comment below or email me at martin.mackerel@gmail.com (or both).

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