Although electric vehicles have long been considered a significant way to mitigate climate change through reduced emissions, the dual benefits of reduced air pollution and improved health has not yet been comprehensively addressed. Now, a team of researchers led by the University of Southern California (USC) has documented the actual impact of electric vehicles on both air pollution and health.
By comparing data on total light-duty zero emissions vehicle (ZEV) registration, air pollution levels, and asthma-related emergency room visits across the state of California between 2013 and 2019, the experts found that, as ZEV adoption increased within a given zip code, both local air pollution levels and ER visits dropped.
“When we think about the actions related to climate change, often it’s on a global level,” said study lead author Erika Garcia, an assistant professor of Population and Public Health at USC. “But the idea that changes being made at the local level can improve the health of your own community could be a powerful message to the public and to policy makers.”
However, the researchers also discovered that, while total ZEVs increased over time, adoption of these new vehicles was significantly slower in low-resources zip codes. This disparity highlights the need to restore environmental justice in communities which are disproportionately affected by air pollution and related health problems.
“The impacts of climate change on health can be challenging to talk about because they can feel very scary,” said study senior author Sandrah Eckel, an associate professor of Population and Public Health at USC. “We’re excited about shifting the conversation towards climate change mitigation and adaptation, and these results suggest that transitioning to ZEVs is a key piece of that.”
Since past research has already found that underserved communities, such as lower-income neighborhoods, are facing worse air pollution and associated health problems than more affluent areas, switching to ZEVs could bring substantial benefits.
“Should continuing research support our findings, we want to make sure that those communities that are overburdened with the traffic-related air pollution are truly benefiting from this climate mitigation effort,” Garcia said.
Further research is needed to consider additional impacts of ZEVs, such as emissions related to brake and tire wear, mining of materials for their manufacture, or disposal of old cars. Moreover, transitioning to ZEVs is only part of the solution, according to Eckel. Shifting to public transport, along with “active transport” such as walking or biking, will also be crucial to boost environmental and public health.
The study is published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.
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