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Do Electric Vehicles Really Contribute to Clean Air?

July 21, 2022

Do Electric Vehicles Really Contribute to Clean Air?

I was standing on a corner in Mazatlán over the New Year’s holiday, and was surprised by the number of older cars driving through town. When I took a ride in one of the beach city’s ubiquitous open-air Pulmonia taxis, many of them built on old Volkswagen platforms, I was also surprised by how nasty the exhaust of those old cars smells. 

I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1970s and remember the smoggy orange skies and how we weren’t able to play outside on some days because the air was so bad. The air has improved quite a bit since then; newer cars and their catalytic converters have done a pretty good job of cleaning up the air over the last 50 years. According to the 2021 World Air Quality Report, no cities in Los Angeles County rank among the 15 most polluted cities in the United States. That's a significant improvement from holding nine of the 15 most-polluted-cities spots just two years earlier

The “Zeroing in on Healthy Air” report by the American Lung Association recently revealed that more than four in 10 Americans — more than 135 million people — live in communities that face unhealthy levels of air pollution. Air pollutants from gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles don’t just stink; they have also been shown to increase the risk of asthma attacks, cancer, heart attacks, strokes, and premature death.

According to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), Californians drive about 825 million miles every day, producing 5.4 million tons of smog-forming pollutants and more than 350,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions. CARB reports that more than 95% of Californians live in areas that fail to meet federal or state air quality standards, creating substantial health hazards.

Exhaust emissions from cars and trucks are not only bad for our health, they’re bad for our planet, and are known to be a significant source of global warming greenhouse gasses. With more than 50% of California's total smog and 38% of greenhouse gasses coming from motor vehicles, choosing an electric vehicle is a good way to reduce air pollution.

Fortunately, new data also shows that California, with only 10% of the nation’s cars, now accounts for over 40% of all zero-emission cars in the country. Every one of those electric cars can save an average of 1.5 metric tons of CO2 from being released into our environment each year.

Over the past 10 years, annual sales of plug-in electric vehicles in California have gone from just 7,000 in 2011 to more than a quarter of a million in 2021, making up more than 12% of all light-duty vehicle sales last year, and surpassing more than a million electric vehicles sold in the state. 

Los Angeles is now the American city with the largest number of battery electric vehicles on the road, with just fewer than 70,000 electric vehicles registered as of May 2022. On top of this, the state of California has pledged to ban the sale of traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) gasoline- and diesel-powered engine cars by 2035, calling it a critical component to California’s goals to tackle climate change and poor air quality.

While it’s obvious that a fully electric vehicle eliminates tailpipe emissions, doesn’t the production of the electricity required to charge these vehicles also create greenhouse gasses? Well, yes, but not as much as you might think. Due to efficiencies in the energy-creation process, those emissions levels are typically lower than the greenhouse gasses emitted by conventional vehicles. Some research shows it creates only one-third of the greenhouse gas emissions that an ICE vehicle would, and could be even lower as the electric power sector cleans up over the next few decades by using such renewable sources as solar, hydro, and wind.

For example, driving the 2020 Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus in California creates emissions equal to that of a 161-mpg ICE car, or less than one-fifth of the global warming emissions of the average new gasoline-powered car and over 60% less than even the most efficient gasoline-powered car, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Not only that, but EVs emit fewer climate change–causing emissions over their lifetime than their gasoline-powered counterparts, even when factoring in the mining and battery production at the start of their life cycles. Research from shows that EVs make up for, or “work off,” any upfront emissions within six to 16 months of use.

“The shift to zero-emission transportation and electricity generation will save lives and generate massive health benefits across the United States. It is critical that we ensure these benefits are realized in the near term in communities most impacted by harmful pollution today,” says Harold Wimmer, president and CEO of the American Lung Association.

With trends like this in California leading the way, I’ll bet that street corner in Mazatlán will smell much sweeter in the years to come. 

Electric vehicles really can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve the air you breathe. Find out how Autonomy’s car subscription services can get you into a Model 3 in less time than a traditional purchase or lease directly from Tesla.

Brandy Schaffels

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