A new study from the University of Southern California that uses real-world data has provided proof that even at low penetration rates, electric vehicle uptake results in better air quality and better health.
The study, which is believed to be the first of its kind, looks at publicly available data for postcodes across California from 2013 to 2019. Previously, most studies looking at the health benefits of EVs have used projections rather than empirical data.
The team of researchers from USC’s Keck School of Medicine say the observational data provides a “natural experiment” enabling them to document the first real-world association between increasing zero-emission vehicles and improvements in air quality and health.
When electric vehicles go up, air pollution and health problems go down
The researchers focussed on the correlation of three datasets:
- Zero-emission vehicle fleet penetration (ZEVs per 1000 vehicles).
- Annual average monitored nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentrations.
- Annual age-adjusted asthma-related emergency department visit rates.
The study found that on average ZEV penetration in Californian postcodes increased from 1.4 per 1000 population in 2013 to 14.7 per 1000 in 2019, representing a ten fold increase over the period.
The study also found postcodes that saw an increase of zero-emission vehicle fleet penetration of 20 per 1000 (just 2%) saw a measurable drop in annual average NO2 (for context world leading Norwegian ZEV fleet penetration is now over 20%).
This drop in NO2 was also correlated with a 3.2 % decrease in annual asthma-related emergency department visits.
The results which are within a 95% confidence interval show that even at the early stages of zero-emission vehicle uptake, fleet penetration levels as low as 2% show detectable decreases in air pollution and asthma-related emergency department visits.
The study’s lead author and assistant professor of population and public health sciences at the Keck School of Medicine, Erica Garcia said: “When we think about the actions related to climate change, often it’s on a global level,”
“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.” said Garcia.
Fellow author Sandrah Eckel said: “While climate change is a massive health threat, mitigating it offers a massive public health opportunity.”
Lessons and opportunities for Australia
The study proves that electric vehicle policy isn’t just related to transport or climate change but also public health.
Canberra based cardiologist and physician at ANU Medical School Dr Arnagretta Hunter works on climate change public health issues and is the chair of the Commission for the Human Future.
“We know that EVs cause significantly less air pollution than petrol or diesel vehicles,” Dr Hunter said.
“This is the first study that shows us early insights into the health benefits by linking an increase in EVs to a decrease in health impacts of air pollution – presentations to hospital with asthma.”
Dr Hunter said the USC study focuses on asthma because of the relationship between acute asthma and changes in air quality.
“There are other longer term health impacts from air pollution such as cardiovascular disease and cancers. The improvement in air quality demonstrated in this study may translate to further health improvements for that population in the longer term.
“This study should prompt discussion about targeting access to EV transition in areas of higher air pollution – because of the health benefits and associated health cost savings.”
The USC study confirms the huge significance of the electric vehicle transition to public health and is a call-to-arms to Australian decision makers to do everything in their power to accelerate this shift to protect Australians and their children from health wrecking petrol and diesel air pollution.
The report titled California’s early transition to electric vehicles: Observed health and air quality co-benefits was authored by Erika Garcia, Jill Johnston, Rob McConnell, Lawrence Palinkas and Sandrah P. Eckel.
Daniel Bleakley is a clean technology researcher and advocate with a background in engineering and business. He has a strong interest in electric vehicles, renewable energy, manufacturing and public policy.