Shift to EVs would reduce public health costs by billions, lung association says

The traffic ceased. The skies cleared.

Even with all the tumult wrought by the coronavirus, one of the ancillary effects of the crisis was its contribution to improved air quality in major cities across the world. As commuters stayed home, their vehicles stopped spewing pollutants.

In March, Los Angeles, for example, experienced its longest stretch of “good” air days in at least four decades, per data maintained by the EPA. Not engulfed in a brown haze, residents could see for miles.

In many cities, the opportunity to experience life with cleaner air brought greater scrutiny of the costs of living with smog and pollution and of transportation’s contribution to the problem.

A first-of-its-kind report issued this week by the American Lung Association details those societal ramifications, and importantly, says $72 billion in public-health benefits can be achieved with a transition to electric vehicles.

A widespread move to zero-emission transportation would result in 6,300 lives saved, and prevent 93,000 asthma attacks and 416,000 lost work days, the report says. Those health burdens are disproportionately placed upon poor and minority communities, according to the report, titled “The Road To Clean Air.”

“Low-income communities and communities of color often face greater exposures to transportation pollution, not just from tailpipes, but from the whole process of extraction, refining and transport of fossil fuels,” says Harold Wimmer, CEO of the American Lung Association. “By moving away from this system to electric vehicles powered by clean energy, we can transform our nation’s health and future.”

While there are other culprits, the report notes transportation contributes more than half the total ozone and particle-forming nitrogen-oxide emissions and represents the “largest source of carbon pollution in the United States.” Should the widespread adoption of EVs occur, the report finds, NOx emissions would be largely eliminated, while directly emitted fine-particle pollution is reduced by more than 53,000 tons in 2050. 

In some fashion, the report’s singular focus on EVs omits a bigger picture. Electric vehicles themselves are not a cure-all for transportation-related public-health concerns. Certainly, shifts away from single-occupant vehicle trips toward a range of public-transit and non-motorized options would only accelerate broad public-health gains.

Further, the notion that electric vehicles could leap from a percentage of sales that currently languishes in the low single digits to something close to 100 percent in enough time for the fleet to turn over while Americans are hanging onto their cars longer than ever stretches plausibility.

In today’s Decarbonizing Transportation newsletter, Andrew Salzberg asks the question of “How Fast Could We Go Electric If We Really Wanted To?” Without spoiling his examination, the answer is generally not fast enough.

Still, “Road To Clean Air” brings to bear a sober look at the public-health implications of delays in that transition.

And it arrives when COVID-19 has provided a visceral, if fleeting, glimpse of what life might look like if cities were freed from their daily blanket of smog.

Pete Bigelow

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