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Buses Are the Electric Vehicle Everyone Should Be Talking About. Here's Why.

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Buses Are the Electric Vehicle Everyone Should Be Talking About. Here's Why.
Proterra is one of several companies manufacturing electric buses in California. Jeffrey D. Allred

By Adrian Martinez

Dean Florez is preparing for what he calls "one of the biggest votes I've ever taken" as an air regulator at an influential agency with national clout.


When he and 13 other members of the California Air Resources Board (the agency responsible for cleaning up California's air and climate pollution) cast their votes on Friday, they won't be weighing in on driverless vehicles or whether rideshare companies like Uber should clean up their act. Florez is hailing a movement laser-focused on one of the more modest vehicles on California's streets: buses.

A reliable fixture rumbling through our towns and cities, buses are the workhorse of our transit system, providing affordable transportation to any and every one, and they may just be the key to the electric vehicle revolution.

Florez is right; this vote is BIG. And here's why.

Go Big

The vote on Friday determines whether California will commit to a 100-percent electric transit bus fleet – and a quick timeline to get more than a thousand electric buses on our roads.The proposed electric bus rule will save California from burning about 100 million gallons of diesel (or 100 million diesel equivalent gallons, if you're talking natural gas buses) in our buses each year when the rule is fully implemented.

This September, California passed a bill that will get the Golden State to 100-percent clean electricity by 2045. That means no coal and no natural gas in an energy grid that supports about 40 million people. Likewise, the proposed new bus rule recognizes that you can't just go for cleaner combustion or reduced emissions. We need zero emissions, and we need it fast.Under the rule, no public transit agency in the state will buy anything but zero-emission buses 11 years from now. California currently has around 132 zero-emission buses running through our cities and rural areas. Soon, we'll have over 14,000 zero-emission buses.

Under the rule, no public transit agency in the state will buy anything but zero-emission buses 11 years from now. California currently has around 132 zero-emission buses running through our cities and rural areas. Soon, we'll have over 14,000 zero-emission buses.

A worker at the BYD plant. BYD is one of the companies making electric buses in California.BYD

This new program in California recognizes that pollution doesn't seep through every community and every set of lungs equally – frontline communities, largely low-income communities of color, bear the brunt of transportation pollution. A map of childhood asthma rates in the state looks like a grouping of hot spots along freight lines and transportation corridors. That's why this rule specifically includes measures to make sure communities long suffering under the mantle of toxic air pollution have tools to push transit agencies to provide the relief they need sooner. Electric buses are coming to disproportionately impacted communities first.

Electric Buses Open the Door to Electric Everything Else

Not only is electrifying California's buses a great step, it could also be the key to getting off our dependency on diesel trucks, a major polluter for communities and a significant part of California's climate emissions. Buses have similar weights and chassis to trucks, and in the past cleaner vehicle technology has flowed from buses to trucks. The technology development for cleaner buses is closely associated with the tech development for zero-emissions trucks, which are responsible for approximately half of California's transportation-related air pollution.

Motiv

That these new, quiet, efficient electric bus fleets will be operated by public transit agencies helps when it comes to figuring out how to operate large electric fleets. Unlike private shuttle services or trucking companies, public transit agencies don't have a profit motive. These public agencies can develop and share their blueprints for operating electric fleets. That could influence and inform fleet operators everywhere from private trucking companies to private shuttle services, school bus fleets, and port terminals. Information sharing is vital if we're going to electrify everything that moves.

Spurred on by terrible air quality in communities across the state and climate change impacts pounding at our door, California is taking a no prisoners approach to state-level climate solutions. Forget D.C. climate denial, California is both making electric buses (BYD, Proterra, Gillig, and Motiv all manufacture in California, supporting jobs), and then buying them and using them too.

California's transit agencies currently spend hundreds of millions of dollars purchasing fossil fuels. We're subsidizing the oil and gas companies that have been fighting clean air regulations, in addition to mounting sophisticated campaigns to deny the harsh impacts of climate change. The best way to fight these companies is to turn off the spigot of money to buy their products. This is the first of its kind regulation to stop having transit agencies subsidize these corporations that place the interests of their shareholders over the interests of our lungs and planet.

The Electric Bus Rule Could Spark a State-to-State Climate Revolution

When people talk about the actions we must take to combat deadly air pollution and climate change, regulations like the electric bus rule are exactly the kind of regulation we desperately need more of. The zero-emission bus rule has been a long time coming because it was hard. Powerful, entrenched lobbyists sought to prop up the incumbent industries. And advocates from across the state fought hard at the local and state level for years to make this happen.

Local advocates say "natural gas is so '90s" as they rally for a fully electric LA Metro bus fleet.Streetsblog LA

Now that California is making this move, this regulation should stand as a template for other states. Every state has the authority to adopt a state-level regulation like this, and as California goes, so goes the rest of the nation. California's moves in the electric bus arena can spark a trend with other states looking for climate and air quality solutions that work. It is going to take uncompromising leaps forward, like 100% clean energy grids and 100% electric bus fleets, to get us where we need to go.

Fish exposed to endocrine-disrupting compounds, like this inland silverside fish, can pass on health problems to future generations. Bill Stagnaro / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 3.0

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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declares victory during the Labor Party Election Night Function at Auckland Town Hall on Oct. 17, 2020 in Auckland, New Zealand. Hannah Peters / Getty Images

Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand Prime Minister who has emerged as a leader on the climate crisis and the coronavirus pandemic, has won a second term in office.

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Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Sir David Attenborough look at a piece of ice core from the Antarctic during a naming ceremony for the polar research ship the RSS Sir David Attenborough on Sept. 26, 2019 in Birkenhead, England. Asadour Guzelian - WPA Pool / Getty Images

By Elliot Douglas

In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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