A new study led by researchers from Northwestern University projects that if electric vehicles replaced 25% of combustion engine cars currently on the road, the United States would save approximately $17 billion annually by avoiding damages from climate change and air pollution. The open-access paper is published in AGU’s journal GeoHealth.
The Northwestern team, with colleagues from Boston University and the NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton combined climate modeling with public health data to evaluate the impact of electric vehicles on US lives and the economy.
Results show that in more aggressive scenarios—i.e., replacing 75% of cars with electric vehicles and increasing renewable energy for every generation—savings could reach as much as $70 billion annually.
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. 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.—Daniel Peters, a climate scientist with the EDF, formerly of Northwestern and lead author of the new study
From an engineering and technological standpoint, people have been developing solutions to climate change for years, but we need to rigorously assess these solutions. This study presents a nuanced look at electric vehicles and energy generation and found that electric vehicle adoption not only reduces greenhouse gases but saves lives.—Northwestern’s Daniel Horton, senior author
In the new study, Horton, Peters and their team looked at vehicle fleet and emissions data from 2014. They found if 25% of US drivers adopted electric vehicles in 2014, and the power required to charge their batteries came from 2014’s energy generation infrastructure, then 250 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions would have been mitigated.
Although the impact of carbon emissions on the climate is well documented, combustion engines also produce other harmful pollutants, such as particulate matter and the precursors to ground-level ozone. Such pollutants can trigger a variety of health problems, including asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and ultimately premature death.
After leaving tailpipes and smokestacks, pollutants interact with their environment, influencing atmospheric chemistry and meteorology. The researchers used a chemistry-climate computer model to simulate these interactions across the lower 48 states, based on different levels of electric vehicle adoption and renewable energy generation. They then combined this information with publicly available county health data from the US Environmental Protection Agency to assess health consequences from the air quality changes caused by each vehicle electrification scenario.
The research team assigned dollar values to the avoided climate and health damages that could be brought about by electric vehicle adoption by applying the social cost of carbon and value of statistical life metrics to their emission change results. These commonly used policy tools attach a price tag to long-term health, environmental and agricultural damages.
Peters, D. R., Schnell, J. L., Kinney, P. L., Naik, V., & Horton, D. E. (2020). “Public Health and Climate Benefits and Tradeoffs of US Vehicle Electrification.” GeoHealth, 4, e2020GH000275. doi: 10.1029/2020GH000275