Electric vehicles can save lives, reduce emissions, and prevent economic damages

Vehicle electrification across the US could prevent hundreds to thousands of premature deaths annually, while also reducing CO2 emissions by hundreds of millions of tons. Taken together, these effects would prevent substantial economic damages, according to a new study.

Credit Flickr Noya Fields (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Researchers from Northwestern University combined climate modeling with public health data to assess the impact electric vehicles (EV) can have on US lives and the economy. If EVs replace 25% of combustion-engine cars, the country would save $17 billion annually by avoiding damages from air pollution and climate change.

“Vehicle electrification in the US could prevent hundreds to thousands of premature deaths annually while reducing carbon emissions by hundreds of millions of tons,” Daniel Peters, who led the study, said in a press release.

“This highlights the potential of co-beneficial solutions to climate change that not only curb greenhouse gas emissions but also reduce the health burden of harmful air pollution.”

The researchers focused on the US light-duty transportation sector, which accounted for 29% of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the country in 2017. Within the transportation sector, up to 60% of GHG emissions came from light-duty vehicles. The sector has been a key focus for states such as California over the last few years.

To carry out the study, Peters and his team looked at the vehicle fleet and emissions data from 2014. They found that if 25% of the US drivers adopted EVs in 2015 then 250 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions would have been mitigated. Combustion engines also produce harmful pollutants that can cause health problems, such as asthma and chronic bronchitis.

“A good example is to look at nitrogen oxides (NOx), a group of chemicals produced by fossil-fuel combustion,” Peters explained. “NOx itself is damaging to respiratory health, but when it’s exposed to sunlight and volatile organic compounds in the atmosphere, ozone and particulate matter can form.”

To account for these interactions, the researchers developed a model that simulates the weather and chemistry in the atmosphere, including interactions between car exhaust, other sources of emissions, and power generation.

They used the model to simulate changes in air pollutant levels across the lower 48 states, based on different levels of EV adoption and renewable energy generation. They combined this data with already available county health information, which allowed to evaluate health consequences from the air quality changes caused by the adoption of EVs.

“People have been developing solutions to climate change for years,” said Northwestern’s Daniel Horton, senior author of the study. “But we need to rigorously assess these solutions. This study presents a nuanced look at EVs and energy generation and found that EV adoption not only reduces greenhouse gases but saves lives.”

The study was published in the journal GeoHealth.

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