The Covid lockdown has emptied and silenced city streets. Is it inevitable that they will return to noisy thoroughfares full of vehicles belching exhaust gases into the urban air? Why do we continue to support policies that slowly choke the urban environment and those who live and work within it?
Air pollution in the urban environment is a silent killer. In 2016, the World Health Organisation published a comprehensive report that assessed the level of exposure and the burden of disease resulting from ambient air pollution in 3000 large cities around the world. The survey measured levels of exceptionally fine particulate matter, called PM2.5, which is a reliable indicator of overall air quality. There is no safe level of this pollutant—no threshold has been identified below which no damage to health is observed.
In the majority of regions of the world, median concentrations of this pollutant are higher than WHO guidelines. Over 90 percent of the world population are exposed to PM2.5 concentrations that are above the level considered safe. Although some of the worst cases of urban air pollution are found in cities in China and India, many European cities exceed levels considered safe. A report released by Transport for London (TFL) in 2017 shocked the British establishment. It found that all Londoners are exposed to concentrations of PM2.5 higher than WHO air quality guidelines. In central London, almost 8 million people live in areas that exceed the guideline limit by 50 percent or more. Most of this pollution is caused by the exhaust gas emissions of cars, buses, and trucks burning gasoline and diesel fuel.
Elevated levels of nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, and ground level ozone, primarily emitted from vehicles, either cause or exacerbate respiratory diseases and asthma, as well as worsening other health-related conditions such as lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. Small children are particularly susceptible.
These levels of illness and premature deaths impose a substantial societal cost. In Europe, a 2018 study calculated the external cost of air pollution associated with the use of automobiles at around $105 billion euros a year.
In Canada in 2015, the Canadian Medical Association stated that the total number of premature deaths caused by air pollution was at least 3000. The CMA also forecast that annual hospital admissions due to air pollution would rise to over 12,500, while minor illnesses would affect almost 24 million people a year. The annual cost of air pollution in Canada in 2015 was estimated at almost $12 billion in today’s dollars.
A recent study looking at just the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) found that the operation of all types of road vehicles in the region caused over 730 premature deaths a year from air pollution. The cost to society of this premature mortality is estimated at about $5.6 billion a year.
Time to plug in
In the GTHA, a rapid transition to 100% electric cars and SUVs would provide up to $2.4 billion in social benefits, while shifting to 100% electric buses and more efficient trucks would more than double these benefits. Replacing a single car or SUV burning gasoline or diesel fuel by an electric vehicle is estimated to generate almost $10,000 a year in social benefits: benefits that are shared by everyone in the region. These numbers clearly show that providing incentives for the purchase of electric vehicles can deliver very substantial health benefits across the region.
For the car owner, switching to an electric vehicle (EV) clearly saves money. Recent studies have shown that in many countries, including North America and Europe, EVs are cheaper to own and run than conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. A recent Canadian study confirmed this conclusion.
Although the cost of EVs is declining, they are still significantly more expensive than conventional gasoline or diesel cars and SUVs of similar size. In a number of jurisdictions, this sticker price differential has been offset by government-funded rebates that are available to people purchasing a new electric car. The Canadian government provides a rebate of $5000, and several provinces including Quebec and British Columbia provide additional rebates of $8000 and $3000, respectively. The rebates have stimulated the sales of EVs in these two Canadian provinces which now have the highest rates of EV sales in Canada.
The province of Quebec has been particularly innovative. In 2016, it adopted the Zero Emission Vehicle Act which is designed to increase the number of zero and low emission vehicles. The ZEV standard came into effect in January 2018 and requires manufacturers to earn credits through the sale or lease of zero and low emissions vehicles in the Quebec market.
Clean and green
The argument in favour of incentivising the purchase of electric vehicles has generally centred on the reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG)—since battery electric cars have absolutely no emissions. In countries that have committed to reducing GHG emissions in accordance with their Paris Agreement targets, the electrification of the transport sector is a mainstay of climate change policy. If all road vehicles operating in the GHTA were fully electric, the reduction in GHG emissions would amount to over 9 million tonnes of greenhouse gases a year—roughly half of Toronto’s present emissions.
So to summarize. Transitioning to electric vehicles will substantially improve urban air quality, eliminate the hundreds of lives that are lost each year to air pollution, reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, save car owners significant amounts of money, and cut billions of dollars from Canada’s annual healthcare costs. Not only are these socio-economic benefits huge, there are enormous employment opportunities in Canada for the manufacture of electric cars, buses, trucks and all their component parts including batteries.
Scandanavia, Western Europe, and American states like California are all pursuing aggressive policies to promote electric vehicles. The governments of Quebec and British Columbia have followed suit. This fruit is so low-hanging it’s practically on the ground. When we talk about building back better and greener in the post-Covid19 era, one absolute priority must be the implementation of substantial government programs to facilitate and expedite the transition to electric forms of transportation.
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For a broader picture of the climate crisis, its environmental impacts, and what you can do about it, look at these excellent websites: Revitalisation, and this site focused on sustainable development goals