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.  

Nonetheless, 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. Their conclusion hides the immediate reason that we need to transition to electric vehicles: localized, ground-level pollution that 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. Therefore, EVs all start their life in “debt,” carbon-wise. As the grid incorporates more renewable energy sources, and as EVs are on the road longer, their emission per mile will drop, and it is conceivable that in 5-10 years, they can be truly zero emissions. 

However, looking just at the global carbon budget avoids a different truth: in addition to carbon emissions, the conventional transportation sector is responsible for ground-level air pollution. ICE vehicles spew chemicals such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides (NOx) and ozone. 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. 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 air pollution. 

While everyone wants cleaner air, exposure to vehicular air pollution is not evenly distributed, with one study finding “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 health burden of historic and current exposure to environmental pollutants is particularly clear with the disparate hospitalization and death rates due to covid - a respiratory illness. “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of risk factors for severe COVID-19 largely overlap with the list of diseases that are known to be worsened by chronic exposure to air pollution, including diabetes, heart diseases, and chronic airway diseases, such as asthma, lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.” The effect of vehicular air pollution on communities of color is present, active, and ongoing. 

The transition to electric vehicles helps relieve this undue burden by lowering vehicle emissions now, even if the longer term climate benefits take 5-10 years to see. Since these 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 requires many solutions: 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. For our part, Recurrent works on bringing transparency to used EV shopping to help people understand how to find a reliable and affordable vehicle.

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.