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Our new report shows the importance of “accelerating to 100% clean” vehicles

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Blog, Environmental Defense Fund

EDF's energy experts discuss how to accelerate the transition to a clean, low-carbon energy economy. Guided by science and economics, EDF tackles urgent threats with practical solutions. Founded...

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By Mandy Warner

Drone photo of busy highways over Denver’s Elyria-Swansea and Globeville neighborhoods and schools. Credit: Chance Multimedia

Air pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and death in the world. In the U.S. almost half of all people live in communities with unhealthy levels of air pollution. More than 20,000 Americans die prematurely every year as a result of the motor vehicle pollution on our roads and highways, according to a new peer reviewed study by EPA  experts. Pollution from our roadways disproportionately harms people of color and lower income communities. Transportation sector pollution is now also the largest source of climate pollution in the U.S.

A new EDF report includes these facts and other comprehensive information about the dangers of transportation sector pollution and about strategies to address it. The report, Accelerating to 100% Clean: Zero Emitting Vehicles Save Lives, Advance Justice, Create Jobs, compiles the best and most recent information on the issue.

Here are a few key findings.

There is a substantial pollution burden from transportation

Last year our nation’s cars, SUVs, trucks and buses emitted three million tons of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) pollution – one-third of our nation’s total NOx emissions. NOx contributes to the formation of smog, which can contribute to asthma attacks, respiratory issues, and even early death.

  • Highway vehicles were responsible for more carbon monoxide and NOx pollution in 2019 than all of the nation’s power plants combined.
  • Our highway vehicles also emitted more than 1.4 million tons of smog-forming volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
  • Passenger cars and light trucks are responsible for just over half of the NOx emissions and almost all of the VOC pollution from motor vehicles.
  • Despite making up only about four percent of vehicles on the road, the delivery trucks and tractor trailers that distribute our goods deliver almost half of the NOx emissions and nearly 60 percent of the fine particulate pollution from all vehicles.

The transportation sector is now the largest source of climate pollution in the nation, with vehicles on our roads emitting more than 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2019.

Communities near roadways suffer the greatest burden

Pollution disproportionately harms communities near roadways, and as much as 45 percent of the urban population in North America lives next to a “busy road.” Communities of color and disadvantaged populations make up a higher percentage of the populations near our roads and highways, meaning they shoulder the greatest health burden from vehicle pollution.

Our nation’s schoolchildren are also impacted, with more than 6.4 million children attending a public school within 250 meters of a major roadway. As children’s lungs develop, they breathe in more air per unit of body weight than adults. Dirty air contributes to and exacerbates upper and lower respiratory infections and asthma in children, and it may also affect pediatric cancer and infant mortality and weight.

Traffic-related air pollution is also a risk factor for several pregnancy outcomes, including preterm birth and structural birth defects. Exposure to certain air pollutants appears to substantially increase the risk of early preterm birth (less than 37 weeks of gestation), particularly in lower income neighborhoods.

While children are among the most vulnerable, adults are also at risk from near roadway pollution. Living near a major roadway is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, of developing Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and of decreased lung function in women.

Disproportionate impact on people of color and disadvantaged communities 

Pollution from the transportation sector adds to the existing health disparities that some racial and ethnic communities in the United States already face, including higher rates of chronic disease and premature death.

EPA recently found that Black people and lower income populations are at a greater risk for health impacts from fine particulates and have a higher risk of premature death from ozone and particle pollution than Whites.

The health risks of near-roadway pollution have a disparate impact on people of color and lower income households because these groups constitute a higher percentage of the population near major roadways. A recent study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that Asian American, Black, and Latino American residents in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. breathe an average of 66 percent more air pollution from cars and trucks than white residents.

Zero Emitting Vehicles deliver clean air, are cost-effective, and can create U.S. jobs

The good news is that we have the tools and technologies to almost eliminate pollution from the transportation sector, including by transitioning to Zero Emitting Vehicles (ZEVs). Electric vehicles are inherently cleaner than their conventional gasoline and diesel counterparts, emitting zero tailpipe pollution and less climate pollution even when accounting for upstream power plant emissions.

The carbon footprint of ZEVs will also continue to decline as the electricity grid becomes cleaner. Some estimates suggest that more than 75 percent of the incremental electricity production between 2020 and 2050 will come from renewable sources.

ZEVs are also increasingly broadly available, come with higher battery range, and are cost-effective. By next year it is expected there will be at least five models available for under $30,000. Two years after that, in 2023, it’s anticipated there will be more than 100 models of electric passenger vehicle models in all on the market. Electric vehicles are quickly becoming cost competitive with conventional vehicles, especially when considering the significant cost savings from maintenance and fuel savings.

There are more than 70 models of electric trucks and buses currently available or with production announced for the next two years. Zero emitting commercial trucks not only reduce climate and NOx pollution because they release no tailpipe emissions, they are also two to five times more energy efficient than diesel vehicles. Electrifying school and transit buses will help reduce the health burden on children and the communities that rely heavily on public transit.

Battery-electric trucks and buses, including long-haul semi-trucks, are projected to have similar or lower total cost of ownership than diesel vehicles when purchased within the next 5 to 10 years. E-buses (in most charging configurations) already cost less than comparable diesel buses on a total-cost-of-ownership basis.

The transition to ZEVs is already creating American jobs. In 2019, there were more than 240,000 people in America employed in jobs related to hybrid and electric vehicles, and nearly 500,000 working in jobs focused on fuel efficient components. These homegrown industries can expand to help build the 100% clean transportation sector we must achieve.

Rebuilding better with Zero Emitting Vehicles

We are now in the midst of a global pandemic that early research indicates is exacerbated by our chronic air pollution. As we center our efforts on minimizing loss of life and on economic recovery from COVID-19, we must also focus on rebuilding in ways that deliver cleaner, healthier air and more just communities – especially for those hit hardest by the crisis. We have an opportunity to build a world that’s healthier and more equitable than before the pandemic by investing in zero emission technology – which will also improve public health, mitigate catastrophic climate change and create jobs.

Eliminating the dangerous air pollution from our cars, trucks and buses through electrification is one of the most important actions we can take to address climate pollution and provide healthier and longer lives for millions of people – especially Black, Indigenous and People of Color who are disproportionately harmed by air pollution.

We now have a once in a generation opportunity to boldly transform the transportation sector and eliminate climate pollution, smog-forming pollution, lethal particulate pollution, and air toxics – and save 20,000 lives each year.

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