The economic and greenhouse gas emissions benefits of transitioning to electric vehicles, or EVs, get significant attention, as they should. The so-called wallet and environmental paybacks of EVs will be significant. However, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the elimination of tailpipe emissions will have substantial positive effects on public health. Just as removing lead from gasoline had measurable health benefits, the elimination of remaining tailpipe emissions will radically improve overall health.
Under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), sets National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for pollutants in outdoor air that are harmful to public health, and is now considering a proposed rule to lower NAAQS for fine particles; known as PM2.5. The proposal is controversial and is drawing criticism from industry groups. EVs can play a role in reducing inhalable particulates.
It’s clear our automobile future will be electrified. EVs are rapidly establishing themselves as a significant component of the automobile market. Zero emission vehicle accounted for 5.8% of all U.S. car sales in 2022. It is estimated there are 27 million EVs on the road globally, and that there will 40 million by the end of this year. In 2023 it is estimated there will be over 13 million electric passenger vehicles sold world-wide.
More new cars are sold in California than any other state. The California Energy Commission reports that 18.8% of all new cars sold last year in that state were zero emission vehicles; a 138% increase over 2020. California’s Advanced Clean Cars II regulations call for all new passenger cars sold in the state to be zero emission vehicles by 2035. As the largest car market in the U.S., those regulations have nationwide impacts. Seventeen other states, including Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York all follow California emissions regulations, raising the possibility or even likelihood that cars in those states will phase out internal combustion engine or “ICE” vehicles by 2035 as well. In February, New Jersey announced it too will eliminate the sale of new ICE cars by 2035. According to a press release from the Governor, beginning in 2035 all new cars sold in New Jersey will not just be electric, but the electricity used to charge EV batteries will solely come from renewable resources.
Automakers are moving rapidly to electrify their offerings. General Motors says it will stop selling gas powered vehicles by 2035. Ford plans to become carbon neutral by 2050 and it will invest at least $22 billion in electric vehicles by 2025. All of the major auto manufactures have similar plans.
According to EPA, there are 68 million multi-car homes in the U.S. The agency reports that if these households switched one of their cars to an EV, they could collectively save $36–72 billion in annual fuel costs. Even when accounting for power plant emissions, the EPA estimates this switch could reduce greenhouse gases by an estimated 160–320 million metric tons per year. Meaningful reductions in inhalable fine particle emissions are also expected.
The American Lung Association published a report entitled: Zeroing in on Healthy Air, A National Assessment of Health and Climate Benefits of Zero Emission Transportation and Electricity, the conclusions of which are astounding. The Lung Association finds “a national shift to 100 percent sales of zero-emission passenger vehicles (by 2035) and medium and heavy-duty trucks (by 2040), coupled with renewable electricity would generate over $1.2 trillion in public health benefits between 2020 and 2050. These benefits would take the form of avoiding up to 110,000 premature deaths, along with nearly 3 million asthma attacks.”
Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health published, Assessing the Health Impacts of Electric Vehicles through Air Pollution in the United States, that forecasts similar benefits. That study concludes a transition to EVs “will improve population health nearly immediately as most benefits of reduced mortality attributable to air pollution accrue in the short term.”
These health benefits need to be kept front of mind as we move toward a fully electrified transit system. Worldwide, climate change benefits are anticipated, and the automobile owner is going to see fuel cost savings. These are hugely consequential, but don’t forget the street level health benefits associated with the reduction of inhalable fine particles emitted from tailpipes. Those benefits will be real and rapid. Something to think about the next time you find yourself sitting in traffic, or idling in the carpool line.