Every day, I pore through Facebook comments from EV antagonists claiming that they aren’t really any cleaner than combustion engines and that electrification is propaganda. This is untrue. Every honest carbon accounting does show that “electric vehicles have a net positive impact on air quality and climate change” even when the margins are thin.  

To support their campaign against electric vehicles, these commenters cite papers showing, for instance, that it takes up to 50,000 miles for the carbon footprint of a new EV to be lower than that of an ICE vehicle. On the surface, these studies are not incorrect - merely disingenuous or taken out of context. Their conclusion hides the immediate reason that we need to transition to electric vehicles: localized, ground-level pollution, which often comes from cars, is known to cause serious health risks, hospitalizations, and premature death. 

The production-related carbon emissions associated with mining lithium-ion battery materials and making a new electric car are actually higher than the emissions associated with making a new ICE. And, depending on the way local energy is generated, there are still carbon emissions from the electricity needed to charge an EV. But electric cars have the potential to become cleaner. As the grid incorporates more renewable energy sources, and as battery recycling matures, EV emissions per mile will drop.

Electric Cars: Not Just About Climate Change

However, when we talk about EVs, it is important to look beyond the global carbon budget. Fossil-fuel based transportation is responsible for ground-level air pollution that hurts people and costs our communities a lot. This air pollution is local and does not contribute directly to global warming, but it is known to increase the rate and severity of respiratory illness, cardiovascular illness, and death. ICE vehicles spew chemicals such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides (NOx) and ozone. One of the most concerning emissions is fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which is responsible for 3-4 million additional air pollution deaths a year. On the other hand, EVs do not emit anything when they drive. So, every time an ICE vehicle is traded for an EV, there is a reduction in the total amount of real-time, harmful air pollution.

Who Suffers from Air Pollution?

While everyone wants cleaner air, exposure to vehicular air pollution is not evenly distributed. One study found that

“Communities of color in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic breathe 66 percent more air pollution from vehicles than white residents.”

Another study notes that the West Bronx in New York City, where demographics are 70% latino and 29% African American, has 270 times higher vehicular particulate emissions than the state average due to proximity to highways and truck routes. The imbalance in environmentally-induced health issues have deep ties to institutional racism and redlining, which forced minority populations to settle around highways, away from trees, and near dense transportation hubs. Further work has shown race and ethnicity to be the largest predictors of outdoor, transportation-related air pollution and that redlined maps from the 1930’s and 40’s are predictive of a population’s current day health problems.

None of this is conjecture, but local concerns are often overlooked in the arithmetic of global emissions reductions.

A chart from the US Census Bureau showing how people of color are disproportionately affected by air pollution

The effect of vehicular air pollution on communities of color is present, active, and ongoing. In fact, risk factors for severe COVID-19 overlap almost entirely "with the list of diseases that are known to be worsened by chronic exposure to air pollution." Essentially, having higher exposure to air pollution from cars and trucks made you more likely to die from covid.

Switching to Electric Transportation Helps

A transition to electric vehicles is often hailed as a key way to mitigate some of these issues, but research on the benefits of reduced air pollution and improved health has been largely hypothetical. However, earlier this year, a team of USC researchers documented the actual impact of EV adoption in the first study to use real-world data to link electric cars, air pollution and health. The team compared data on total zero emissions vehicle (ZEV) registration, air pollution levels and asthma-related emergency room visits across California between 2013 to 2019. As ZEV adoption increased within a given zip code, local air pollution levels and emergency room visits dropped.

Erika Garcia, Jill Johnston, Rob McConnell, Lawrence Palinkas, Sandrah P. Eckel, California's early transition to electric vehicles: Observed health and air quality co-benefits,Science of The Total Environment,Volume 867,2023,161761,ISSN 0048-9697, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2023.161761.

More specifically, for every additional 20 ZEVs per 1,000 people in a given zip code, there was a ~3% drop in the rate of asthma-related emergency visits and a small suggestive reduction in NO2 levels. On average across zip codes in the state, ZEVs increased from 1.4 to 14.6 per 1,000 people between 2013 and 2019.

However, ZEV adoption was significantly lower in zip codes with lower socioeconomic status. For example, a zip code with 17% of the population having a bachelor’s degree had, on average, an annual increase of 0.70 ZEVs per 1,000 people. A zip code with 47% of the population having a bachelor's degree had an annual increase of 3.6 ZEVs per 1,000 people - more than 5 times as much ZEV adoption. The data support previous studies, which suggested that underserved communities, such as lower-income neighborhoods, tend to face worse pollution and associated respiratory problems than more affluent areas. If ZEVs replace gas-powered cars in those neighborhoods, they could stand to benefit substantially. 

Similarly, the American Lung Association released a 2023 "State of the Air" report that highlighted the health and cost benefits of switching to zero-emissions vehicles, especially when coupled with cleaning up our electricity generation. The found the potential for:

$978 billion in public health benefits, 10.7 million fewer lost workdays, 2.2 million fewer asthma attacks, & 89,300 fewer premature human deaths

We Need Programs and Incentives

Since the most at-risk communities are often located in central transportation hubs, any increase in EV adoption, even in neighborhoods across town, will lessen the air pollution exposure. However, getting low emissions vehicles into disadvantaged communities would be best in terms of overall health and savings outcomes. Programs to make EVs more accessible include more point-of-sale incentives, lower purchase prices, and more inclusive charging infrastructure. Both government and private groups are working to bring equity to the electric transition. One important thing is support for used EVs purchases - especially for people with low and medium income. The Federal Government's used EV tax credit was a good step, but more states need to adopt point-of-sale rebates, which tend to be most beneficial to households on restricted incomes.

So perhaps the real math is that while they will help the big picture soon, EVs offer huge local wins today and can help right institutional injustices. As a study looking at the EV transition in China explains,

“while EVs are an essential part of addressing global climate change, the localized health effects…could be dramatic.”

I’m not hoping to win over any EV skeptics, but if a new way of looking at EV benefits brings in a few more people, our neighbors can have cleaner air.