Imagine an entrepreneur introducing a new innovation today that would transform everyone’s daily life, arguably for the better, but that came with some nasty not-so-little side effects. Millions of people using the innovation would die every year directly from its use. Millions more would be severely injured, costing medical systems billions of dollars. Millions more on top of that would die indirectly from a chemical reaction produced in its use. That chemical reaction would also release an extraordinary amount of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, destabilizing the entire planetary climate. Plus, gathering the inputs needed to make this innovation work would spark all sorts of conflicts, wars and massive environmental destruction. I’d like to think this innovation would never, ever get funded or built, as is, in this day and age.
But that, my friends, is the cumulative effect of the passenger car. 41% of greenhouse gas emissions come from passenger cars. Four million cumulative deaths since 1913 in the US alone, more than a million a year globally. $473 billion dollars, a year, in accident related medical expenses. But most research shows the indirect impact, from pollution, is even more damaging and expensive. In fact, here in the US, you are 19% more likely to die from air pollution associated with cars than an accident.
So getting people out of shared transportation and into private cars was wildly convenient, enabled a move out of cramped cities into more comfortable suburban homes, and enabled an unprecedented level of exploration and travel. But wow, what a horrific cost.
EVs to improve public health
Which is why a new study released this week is pretty exciting (and thank you to reader Steve Moore for sharing it!). California has been a leader in the transition to electric vehicles. So much so that researchers can now measure the impact that EV ownership has on surrounding air quality and asthma related emergency visits. While researchers have previously modeled the estimated impact on public health, this study is the first to prove that yes, as EV ownership rates go up, pollution -- and ER visits and medical costs -- go down. Combined with prior research that show EV owners have 40% fewer injury claims than non EV owners, we are at a tipping point where we will mitigate some of the collateral damage associated with a product many people can not imagine living without (Yes, I wish we all got around on high speed electric trains. Different post.)
This research will likely accelerate one lever: policy. California has already set 2035 as the date to eliminate the sale of combustion engine cars and seventeen states are expected to follow. But we don’t have US federal policy mandating the transition. What the federal government has done is provide EV incentives - $7,500 for new vehicles and $4,000 for the purchase of used vehicles. There are also incentives for installing charging stations. The government is also supporting the transition to renewables for electricity generation, which is when the transformational impact of the climate benefits are gained.
Inequality and the future of EVs
What the California research also unveiled is that income is highly correlated with EV ownership rates, which raises all sorts of equity questions. The most ubiquitous EV currently in California (73% of share) is very expensive - a Tesla. As more traditional auto manufacturers transition to more modestly priced EVs, this inequity may lessen but given the health and safety benefits, it’s something policymakers need to address.
Mr. Stevens and I are not EV owners - yet. We have his/her Priuses and the greenest choice, based on a ridiculously complicated total lifecycle assessment, is to hold onto them until end of life and then get EVs. But we do know these will be our last combustion engine vehicles ever. I, for one, can’t wait to be done.
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