Electric vehicles could save thousands of lives by reducing pollution, new study finds


A new study has found that electrification of transportation can save money and lives, looking at the city of Chicago as a test case.

The researchers calculated that if 30 per cent of vehicles in Chicago currently running on combustion engines were converted to electric, the pollution reduction would save more than 1,000 lives and $10 billion US in health care costs every year.

Vehicle emissions produce greenhouse gasses, of course, but there are other combustion products besides carbon dioxide coming out of tailpipes that affect health, especially in urban areas. Nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, such as the black smoke from diesel engines, has impacts on the respiratory and cardiovascular system.

The World Health Organization has pointed to vehicle emissions as a major contributor to air pollution that causes millions of deaths worldwide every year.

The study, by researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago, was published this week in the journal Environmental Research: Infrastructure and Sustainability.

The team used computer simulations to calculate the reductions in emissions from electrification of vehicles, including motorcycles, personal vehicles as well as light and heavy-duty trucks. According to an earlier study by the same group, just focusing on the heavy-duty trucks could save 500 lives.

One of the arguments against electric vehicles (EVs) is that the extra demand for electricity would drive more pollution from generating stations, which are powered by fossil fuels. However, the authors found the emission reductions from converting to EVs far outweighed the increase from power plants.

“A common misconception regarding EVs is that areas near power plants — which are often minority communities — disproportionately suffer the burden of poor air quality due to increased electricity demand and power plant emissions output,” Maxime Visa, the study’s lead author, said in a press release.

“Our study found that on-road emission decreases more than offset power plant emission increases.”

And, of course, as we shift to renewables for power generation, those power plant emissions will decline.

Another criticism of electric vehicles is the environmental impact of producing lithium ion batteries. This ranges from concern about the use of water and toxic chemicals for lithium mining in Chile, to the controversial and exploitative practice of mining rare earth elements in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But consider the environmental impact of drilling for oil, fracking natural gas, digging up oil sands, oil spills, methane leaks, piping bitumen thousands of kilometres to oil refineries in Texas, adding heat to distill the crude into lighter fuels and then transporting those fuels to filling stations across the country. Once you fill your fuel tank, the combustion engine blows it right through the tailpipe producing harmful emissions directly into the air for the entire life of the vehicle.

According to the International Energy Agency, the global transportation sector pumps more than eight billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year.

Once a battery is installed in an EV, there are no emissions for the entire life of the vehicle. End-of-life disposal is currently an issue, but new industries are emerging that recycle the batteries and extract the lithium. And if the government of Canada’s new policies aimed at increasing domestic supply of lithium and other elements, we might have more control over the environmental impact of battery material production.

Again, the World Health Organization has estimated that nearly seven million people worldwide died prematurely from fossil fuel pollution in 2018. That is more than the combined population of Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal in one year.

The WHO also estimates that just under seven million people have died from COVID-19 since the outbreak began in 2020. In other words, more people died from air pollution in just one recent year than have died from the entire pandemic to date.

The Chicago study showed the health benefits of converting less than one third of vehicles to electric. Imagine the benefits of converting all of them.

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