Livable Planet

How the Switch to Zero Emission Vehicles May Be a Lifesaver

Advocates want you to know that in California you’re more likely to die from air pollution than from a car crash.

by Emily Weitz
Sep 14 2017, 7:00pm

Photo by Marilyn Murphy via Pixabay

September 9-17 is National Drive Electric Week in the US.

When it comes to initiatives targeted at transitioning to zero emissions vehicles, the reason cited is often the impact fossil fuel-dependent vehicles have on global warming. It's about preserving the planet for future generations. It's about protecting the polar bears. It's about the future. But the other side of the coin is just as compelling, and a whole lot more personal. No matter how much you might work out or watch your calories, exposure to a harmful environment can directly impact your personal health and well-being. As more cities vow to switch to zero emissions vehicles in their public transport fleets and more individuals trade in their gas guzzlers for quiet electric vehicles, public health and quality of life improve immediately. Here's how electric vehicles improve public health and some ways you can help move the US forward on the issue.

Air pollution is a problem that adversely affects the health of more than half of all Americans, according to a report published by the American Lung Association in 2016. That's 166 million Americans who are breathing air that contributes to health problems ranging from asthma to cardiovascular disease, from impaired lung function to premature death. Now, there are many pollutants in the air, and even if we were to get rid of every single gasoline-powered car, there would still be air pollution. But, in that report, a 2013 study of 10 states is cited, finding that 49 percent of greenhouse gas emissions could be attributed to transportation. If those emissions were reduced to zero, well, you do the math.

"Providing people with cleaner buses is an important way to reduce air pollution in our cities."

"It's clear that as we clean up our transportation sector and slash emissions, that will have positive benefits for people's health," Gina Coplon-Newfield, Director of the Clean Transportation for All Campaign at the Sierra Club, told VICE Impact. She points out it's beyond just breathing healthier air. By making public transportation cleaner and biking and walking more accessible, people are getting access to aerobic exercise and fresh air. She believes that getting away from fossil fuels is an important step towards improving public health.

"Oil is a dangerous fossil fuel at all levels," said Coplon-Newfield. "The extraction, the transport, and the burning. That's not only in terms of carbon emissions that impact climate change, but also the emissions that impact public health. Oil-related pollution leads to health concerns like asthma, cancer, and heart conditions."

That's why a major priority of the Sierra Club's Electric Vehicle initiative isn't just to get individuals to switch to EVs, but to encourage cities to commit to switching their public transport fleets over. And it's happening – not just out of the goodness of the hearts of these mayors, but because it makes sense.

"Providing people with cleaner buses is an important way to reduce air pollution in our cities," said Coplon-Newfield.

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Los Angeles, which is notorious for its smog and commuter pollution, is leading the way for major US cities in the trek to eliminate emissions from mass transit. Mayor Eric Garcetti set the goal to move to all-electric or hydrogen powered buses by 2030, which would require the purchase of more than 2,300 buses over the course of the next decade or so.

"We have two choices," said Garcetti in an article published in the LA Times in July. "We can wait for others, and follow, at the expense of residents' health – or lead and innovate, and reduce emissions as quickly as possible. I'd much rather do the latter."

While LA's plan is the most ambitious so far, it's not the only city that has taken great strides to harness electric technology to improve public health.

"Other cities, like Indianapolis, Portland, and New York City have made great commitments in terms of garbage, police, and park and rec vehicles," said Coplon-Newfield. "In terms of easy charging stations for EVs, we've seen some good commitments from Columbus, Ohio, LA, and Seattle. I don't think we yet have a model city, but some cities are expanding in some areas, and others in other ways."

Whether it's a massive city transport system or an individual switching to electric, an initial investment is required. But in the long term, the benefits, even if you're only looking financially, seem to outweigh the costs.

"Fueling costs are less," said Coplon-Newfield. "Maintenance costs are lower. There are much fewer moving parts that could be subject to breakdown. Even without factoring in rebates, EVs are cheaper over the course of five years."

"If tens of thousands of people are speaking about these changes, that sends an important message. If we can't count on a commitment from the federal government, we can look to states, cities and local businesses to make a change."

But beyond the obvious financial considerations are the harder-to-measure factors.
To cite the American Lung Association's report, pollution from passenger vehicles in the ten states examined was estimated to cost $37 billion in public health and climate change costs. Air pollution was responsible for more than 109,000 asthma attacks, 220,000 lost work days, and over 2,500 premature deaths. Recommendations from the report were that State and Federal Regulating bodies, as well as the EPA, should strengthen Zero Emissions Vehicle programs, including rebates and tax credits to support a transition from fuel-powered vehicles to ZEVs.

Of course, depending on the federal government to pass more stringent regulations is like asking your cat to bark. So it's up to individuals to let their mayors, city councilors, state representatives and other local officials know that these issues matter to them. The studies have been completed, and the plans are laid out. They just need to be adopted.

READ MORE: These 250 Worldwide Events Will Convince You to Get an Electric Car

"The EPA is collecting public comments on the federal fuel efficiency regulations," said Coplon-Newfield. "If tens of thousands of people are speaking about these changes, that sends an important message. If we can't count on a commitment from the federal government, we can look to states, cities and local businesses to make a change."

Tell the EPA that this is an issue that matters to you. Find out what's happening in your neck of the woods for National Drive Electric Week, and how you can get behind the wheel of an electric vehicle. C heck-out #NDEW2017 for latest news on what's happening this month on electric vehicles too.