Environment

How Zero-Emission Vehicles Protect Public Health and Save Lives

If zero-emission vehicles make up the majority of passenger vehicles by 2050 in just a few states, thousands of lives will be saved.

ristianstad, Sweden - March 20, 2016: The charging of some white Nissan electrical cars. Green coiled cables are attached to the front of the cars. These are C4 Energi carpool rentals.
Photo Credit: Imfoto / Shutterstock.com

A new report underscores the high stakes to our health, environment and pocketbooks if we fail to move aggressively to put many more zero-emission vehicles on the road to replace polluting gasoline-powered cars and trucks.

The report, Clean Air Future, from the American Lung Association finds that the public bears a high cost—from respiratory illnesses to thousands of premature deaths—from passenger vehicles powered by today’s transportation fuels. It concludes that thousands of lives would be saved and other health problems avoided if, by 2050, zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) make up a majority of passenger vehicles on the road in the 10 states that have adopted ZEV programs.

The ZEV program, a key policy to reduce climate-changing and smog-forming pollution, is designed to spur automakers to offer and sell increasing volumes of battery-electric, hydrogen fuel cell and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. States that have adopted ZEV programs are California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont. The states represent nearly 30 percent of the U.S. auto market. Other jurisdictions are also considering or adopting similar programs, including Quebec, Canada, which just yesterday adopted a ZEV standard, and world’s largest auto market—China.

Source: American Lung Association in California

The Lung Association looked at the ZEV states to assess the harm caused by gasoline-powered passenger vehicles on their roads today and the benefits of transitioning to a majority zero-emission fleet by 2050.

Its finding: the public health and climate cost attributed to pollution from passenger vehicles in the 10 states today is $37 billion annually. That’s equivalent to every tank of gasoline combusted, on average, causing over $18 in health and climate costs.

However, if zero-emission vehicles made up a majority of the passenger vehicles in the 10 states by 2050, it would help prevent over 2,200 premature deaths (as depicted in the chart below), over 96,000 asthma attacks, and 195,000 lost workdays. Savings in health and climate costs would grow to $33 billion annually by 2050.  

Figure: Avoided premature deaths under a ‘ZEV Future’ Scenario (in ten states) (Source: American Lung Association in California)

Transitioning to 100 percent ZEV sales by 2050 in the 10 ZEV states also would reduce carbon pollution by 162 million metric tons—equivalent to the annual emissions from 34 million passenger vehicles. Nationally, transportation is the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. after power plants. The ZEV program is especially important in California, the Northeast, and the Mid-Atlantic states, where transportation is the largest source of climate-changing pollution.  

The report provides more evidence for accelerating state and national policies to increase electrification of the transportation sector, further reducing our need for petroleum. Replacing petroleum-based, combustion-powered vehicles with zero-emission vehicles will also help reduce direct exposure to pollutants that often disproportionately affect communities of color, lower-income families, as well as those living in urban centers. For example, 17 percent of children living in Northeast urban areas are reported to have had an asthma diagnosis—one of the highest rates in the country, according to a study by John Hopkins Children Center.

The Lung Association’s findings also coincide with a report conducted by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and NRDC concluding that widespread adoption of electric passenger vehicles, as well as electrifying off-road sources like industrial equipment and forklifts, can play a critical role in cutting climate-changing carbon emissions and other harmful pollution, including ground-level ozone. Those benefits become even greater as the electric grid becomes cleaner through greater reliance on  electricity generation from renewable sources like solar and wind power.

This new ALA report underscores the need for us to move aggressively to put a lot more zero-emission vehicles on the road if we are to meet our climate goals and protect public health. and other groups supporting ZEV policies have called for a "tune-up" in California’s ZEV program to ensure that going forward, it continues to achieves its goals of spurring investment in cleaner car technologies and reducing pollution that threatens our health, environment and economy. The Lung Association report also calls for tightening up the California program as well as new state and federal policies to promote ZEVs.

The governors of eight ZEV states (California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont), have signed a memorandum of understanding establishing a joint target of placing at least 3.3 million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2025, translating to over 15 percent of passenger car and light truck sales being electric by then. Reaching those goals, however, will require California’s agency—Air Resources Board—overseeing the ZEV program to tune-up the program to ensure it moves from the a current trajectory of 6% sales in 2025 to 15 percent.

The Lung Association’s findings also coincide with a report conducted by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and NRDC concluding that widespread adoption of electric passenger vehicles, as well as electrifying off-road sources like industrial equipment and forklifts, can play a critical role cutting climate-changing carbon pollution and other harmful pollution, including ground-level ozone. Those benefits become even greater as the electric grid becomes cleaner through greater reliance on renewable generation from sources like solar and wind power.

This new report underscores the need for us to move aggressively to put a lot more zero-emission vehicles on the road if we are to meet our climate goals and protect public health.

This article was originally published by NRDC.

Simon Mui is Director of the California Vehicles and Fuels, Energy & Transportation Program at NRDC. Read more of his articles here.

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