Chart: How much would US air quality improve if it shifted to EVs?

Air pollution will plummet as EVs and renewables are adopted, showcasing the public-health benefits of moving away from fossil fuels.
By Maria Virginia Olano

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Cars and school buses drive on a road spewing clouds of emissions
(Photo: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency/CC BY-NC 2.0)

Canary’s chart of the week translates crucial data about the clean energy transition into a visual format.

As an orange plume of smoke from Canadian wildfires engulfed the Northeast last week and rendered New York City’s air the most toxic in the world for a day, air quality and its impact on human health became the focus of headlines across the country.

But outside of catastrophic wildfire events like the one last week, on average, the leading sources of unhealthy air in the United States are fossil-fuel-powered transportation and electricity generation.

For that reason, a shift toward electric vehicles and renewable energy would slash not only carbon emissions but harmful air pollutants as well. A recent report from the American Lung Association quantifies just how much some of the most common pollutants would be reduced if the country were to speed up the transition to EVs and a clean energy grid.

Some of the most common unhealthy pollutants are particulate matter, specifically PM2.5, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides (NOx), greenhouse gases (GHGs) and sulfur dioxide (SO2). They have been linked to health issues ranging from decreased lung function to increased risk of asthma, heart disease and certain types of cancers.

More than four in 10 Americans live in communities impacted by unhealthy levels of air pollution, but people of color and lower-income Americans are much more likely to be exposed to nearly all sources of pollution.

The American Lung Association’s report finds that a national shift to 100 percent new sales of zero-emissions passenger vehicles by 2035 and medium- and heavy-duty trucks by 2040, coupled with a carbon-free grid, would greatly reduce concentrations of these pollutants in the air. By 2030, NOx, SO2 and GHGs would be reduced by more than 50 percent compared to 2020. By 2040, VOCs and PM2.5 would drop by more than 40 percent. And in 2050, NOx, SO2 and GHG pollution would be down more than 90 percent compared to 2020; VOCs would fall by 78 percent and PM2.5 by 61 percent.

The report offers a few ways to think about the impact of these reductions: They’d equate to over $1.2 trillion in public-health benefits in the form of over 100,000 avoided premature deaths, nearly 3 million avoided asthma attacks and the avoidance of over 13 million lost workdays. Plus, there would be significant climate benefits — the report’s modeled scenario would result in a reduction in greenhouse gases (CO2 equivalent) of 1.5 billion tons per year in 2050.

As it stands, President Biden and major automakers have set a target for half of all new cars sold to be EVs by 2030, and California, Massachusetts, Maryland and New York have all mandated 100 percent of new car sales to be zero-emissions by 2035. These more aggressive goals are in line with the scenario modeled by the ALA report. Fifteen states, including the four above, have also already adopted zero-emissions vehicle standards, and an increasing number are pursuing zero-emissions truck requirements.

Additionally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed new emissions standards earlier this year, which, if adopted, would be the strongest pollution standards ever imposed on cars and trucks in the U.S. The EPA estimates that the new standards would put the country on track for EVs to account for up to 67 percent of new light-duty vehicle sales and 46 percent of new medium-duty vehicle sales by 2032.

The Biden administration has also set a national goal for the U.S. electrical grid to be carbon-free by 2035.

As the report demonstrates, the stakes of the U.S. hitting its most aggressive EV and renewable-energy adoption targets are high, due not only to the imperative to slash carbon emissions but also because of the significant public-health benefits that will stem from a transition away from fossil fuels.

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Maria Virginia Olano is editorial producer at Canary Media.