If gas guzzlers disappeared from US car lots by 2035 and were replaced by zero-emissions vehicles – essentially, electric cars, trucks and SUVs – the nation would see 89,300 fewer premature deaths by 2050, according to a new report from the American Lung Association. But the country would also have to move more toward clean noncombustion electricity – like wind, solar, hydro, geothermal and nuclear – to see the full health benefit.
The report, published Wednesday, says that people in the US would have 2.2 million fewer asthma attacks and 10.7 million fewer lost workdays, and the country would net $978 billion in public health benefits with the move to cleaner vehicles and a cleaner power supply.
“There are very clear benefits of zero-emission technologies,” said report author William Barrett, national senior director for clean air advocacy for the American Lung Association.
The “Driving to Clean Air: Health Benefits of Zero-Emission Cars and Electricity” report uses an analysis of data from the association’s March 2022 report “Zeroing in on Healthy Air.”
Transportation is the leading source of air pollution in the US and the largest creator of carbon pollution that drives the climate crisis, the US Environmental Protection Agency has found. And exposure to any kind of pollution hurts our health: Studies show that it significantly raises the risk of premature death or chronic conditions like asthma, heart problems and even depression and Alzheimer’s.
About 120 million people in the US live in areas with unhealthy air, according to an American Lung Association report published this year.
Low-income communities and communities of color, regardless of income, are disproportionately affected by this health threat. These communities often live closer to major sources of air pollution like major highways and power plants, studies show.
“This transition to zero-emission technologies is critical as a whole but especially critical in making sure that we’re targeting policies and investments and incentive programs so that all communities can take advantage of these health benefits and more healthier transportation choices,” Barrett said.
The switch to zero-emission vehicles would mean a massive change for the US. Although the number of people who drive them is growing, just 4.6% of cars sold in the US in 2021 were electric, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The switch would require an investment up-front, says Dr. Jason West, who studies pollution research and its impact on public health, but the benefits may well exceed the costs of those actions in the first place.
“There are huge health benefits to be gained by switching broadly to electric vehicles,” said West, a professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina, who was not involved with the new report. “The other part of the report says that this positive health result comes when it is coupled with noncombustion electricity generation. So that’s an important part, too. It’s not just switching to electric vehicles but providing the extra electricity needed for those electric vehicles. So that would be renewables, wind and solar or possibly nuclear.”
The auto industry and the federal government are taking big steps to speed the change to zero-emission vehicles.
The Biden administration has been making a push to reduce pollution on two fronts through stricter vehicle emissions standards and more aggressive limits on pollution from the energy sector.
In 2021, the EPA restored Obama-era auto-pollution rules. In April, the agency proposed a rule that would create even stricter emissions standards for all cars and light trucks. If the rule is finalized, it will probably make at least two-thirds of new cars and trucks on the road zero-emission by 2032, the American Lung Association says.
The EPA has also proposed rules that would set more aggressive limits on particle pollution, greenhouse gases and ozone-forming emissions. The draft of the rule on particle pollution alone would tighten the current limit – which has been on the books since 2012 – by 25%. By the administration’s estimate, that could prevent at least 4,200 premature deaths annually.
Congress has also worked to limit pollution. The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act created incentives for Americans to buy zero-emission vehicles, extending a tax credit of up to $7,500 for the purchase of a new electric vehicle until August 2032. It’s also the first time the tax credit could be applied to purchase a used electric vehicle.
The 2022 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act should also accelerate the creation of networks that that could keep fuel electric cars on the road. The act provides money to upgrade the nation’s power grid and $7.5 billion to build out a nationwide charging network.
States have taken additional steps to reduce traffic-related pollution. Seven, including California, have adopted a policy that says all sales of new passenger vehicles would have to be zero-emission by 2035, and more states are seriously looking at adopting it, Barrett said. More than 15 states have instituted additional state-level vehicle standards.
More automakers are also moving to make cleaner vehicles. There is a wider range of options than ever, and battery capacity and range have vastly improved – and are expected to get even better in the near future. Most major carmakers plan to roll out dozens of new models over the next decade and are investing billions in building plants for battery production and other electric vehicle innovations.
“The return on investment in clean air policies is well-known, and it really speaks to the efficacy of policies that demand changes to clean the air,” Barrett said. “They create improved health, reduce climate pollution and create jobs in new sectors and have many, many benefits.”