Smog is created from the interaction of sunlight with hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen from fossil fuel combustion. (Image source: California State University)
And then there’s COVID
Perhaps even more distressing, a recent Harvard study found that “a small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 leads to a large increase in the COVID-19 death rate.” Harvard researchers found an increase in the concentration of just 1 μg/m3 in PM2.5 was associated with an 8% increase in the COVID-19 death rate. Clearly, finding ways to reduce PM2.5 concentrations, through air pollution regulations and electrification of transportation might become even more important during and after the current COVID-19 crisis and other future pandemics.
EVs can make a difference
Researchers at Northwestern University did a study, published in the journal GeoHealth found that “Vehicle electrification in the United States could prevent hundreds to thousands of premature deaths annually while reducing carbon emissions by hundreds of millions of tons,” according to Daniel Peters, who led the study. “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,” he added in a Northwestern news release.
“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.”
Climate and chemistry
To simultaneously simulate the atmosphere’s weather and chemistry, the Northwestern researchers used a chemistry-climate model developed at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. The model included simulations of how emissions from combustion engines and power generation sources interact with each other and other emissions sources in their environments.
Researchers simulated air pollutant changes across the lower 48 states, examining different levels of EV adoption and renewable energy generation. Combined with publicly available county health data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the research team was able to assess health consequences from the air quality changes caused by each electrification scenario.
“The social cost of carbon and value of statistical life is much-studied and much-debated metrics,” Daniel Horton, senior author of the study said. “But they are regularly used to make policy decisions. It helps put a tangible value on the consequences of emitting largely intangible gases into the public sphere that is our shared atmosphere." The study found that “if EVs replaced 25% of the combustion engine cars currently on the road in the United States, the country would save about $17 billion annually by avoiding damages from climate change and air pollution.” The study predicted 437 fewer deaths due to PM2.5 and 98 fewer ozone-related deaths.
If the number of EVs climbed to 75% of all cars on the road with the present power grid the result would be 1,576 fewer PM2.5 deaths and 420 fewer ozone deaths.
The big payoff comes, however, when substantial numbers of EVs are combined with adoption of low to zero-emission electricity generation—the savings could reach as high as $70 billion. With EVs at a 75% level, and with double the amount of renewable energy on the grid, PM2.5 deaths are reduced by 2,939 per year, while ozone-related deaths drop by 366 per year, according to the Northwestern study.
We have to get this right. If we are learning anything from 2020, its that we need to look at much bigger pictures when it comes to public health and social welfare. The emphasis of moving to an electrified transportation system has always been to help mitigate the long-term effects of climate change through the reduction of greenhouse gasses. As important as that is, Northwestern’s study has shown EVs have the potential, along with a revised power grid with more renewable energy sources, to prevent deaths due to respiratory illness, all the while saving a substantial amount of money. It doesn’t take a genius to see where we need to go.