Last week, I discussed why consuming oil is bad for U.S. national security. In this post, I’ll look at another reason to consider a plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) – helping the environment. I’ve previously explored the effect PEVs will have on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It is clear that PEVs have the potential to reduce GHG emissions significantly so long as society also reduces the carbon intensity of the electrical grid. But the environmental benefits of PEVs are not limited to climate change.
Figure 2: It's hard to see through all the smog, but that’s the Brooklyn Bridge in NYC in 1988. (Source)
PEVs also benefit local air quality, which might matter a lot if you live in a city with poor air quality. Despite enormous strides in the U.S. to reduce air pollution, the EPA estimated in February of this year that nearly 127 million Americans live in areas where air quality concentrations are above the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to establish and periodically update and evaluate the NAAQS. While air quality has improved significantly since 1990, nearly half of Americans still face air quality-related health risks, including decreased lung function, aggravated asthma, and premature mortality.
Air pollution primarily comes from stationary fuel combustion, industrial processes, and vehicles. Transportation mainly contributes to two air pollution problems: ground-level ozone and particle pollution. Particle pollution or particulate matter (PM) consists of solid particles and liquid droplets in the air; coal fired power plants, as well as diesel vehicles including cars, trucks, and buses, are some of the sources of PM. Ground-level ozone, a serious air pollutant also known as smog, results when sunlight reacts with oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (which are components, for example, of vehicle exhaust).
The health effects of air pollution include decreased lung function, respiratory infection, and even increased risk of heart attacks and strokes under certain conditions. While the U.S. EPA and state governments are moving ahead with regulations that improve the air quality for Americans, most people (especially in urban areas) remain at risk of effects from excessive ozone and PM. The American Lung Association recommends the EPA reduce air pollution from vehicle tailpipes. One way consumers can help is by purchasing vehicles with lower tailpipe emissions such as PEVs.
The more miles Americans travel in passenger vehicles powered by electric motors, the more local air quality will improve according to a study completed by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). It is difficult to quantify air quality benefits from using PEVs since air pollution can come from multiple sources, including vehicle tailpipes as well as power plants. All-electric vehicles in cities will almost certainly improve local air quality since a mile traveled that is powered by electricity does not produce any vehicle emissions and the power plants that produce the electricity are often located away from city centers. For plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, those improvements are tempered by the percentage of miles that rely on the gasoline or diesel-powered backup energy source rather than by the batteries. In fact, using PEVs can result in more local air pollution at the electricity generation source, especially if the source is a coal power plant. This potential problem underscores another reason (in addition to the goal of reducing GHG emissions) that we should work on reducing power plant pollution as we green the vehicle fleet.
PEVs will not end air pollution in the United States, but increasing the market penetration of these vehicles will help reduce air pollution in cities throughout the country. In the next post, I’ll look into how the financial numbers might work out with a PEV for your next vehicle purchase.
Nick Nigro is a Solutions Fellow
Though it is unlikely that the first generation of plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) will be adopted by the masses, there is a compelling case for everyday consumers to take a look at these vehicles when they become available this winter. There is no silver bullet to solving climate change, but PEVs could play an important role as one of a broader set of solutions. As is the case for many climate solutions, the benefits from PEVs are more than environmental. In this three part series, I’ll make the case for PEVs based on the gamut of issues that matter to Americans – national security, the environment, and their wallets.
This blog post originally appeared on Belfer Center's An Economic View of the Environment
Cap-and-trade has been demonized by conservatives as part of an effective strategy to stop climate legislation from moving forward in the U.S. Congress. As I wrote in my previous blog post (“Beware of Scorched-Earth Strategies in Climate Debates,” July 27, 2010), this unfortunate tarnishing of market-based instruments for environmental protection will come back to haunt conservatives and liberals alike when it becomes politically difficult to use the power of the marketplace to reduce business costs in the pursuit of a wide variety of environmental objectives.
The rough weather of 2010 teaches us that climate change is risky business.
Recently, I posted a blog discussing the possible link between global climate change and two related extreme weather events: the heat wave in Russia and historic flooding in Pakistan. Although there is no method to definitively attribute any single event to climate change, based on documented trends in extreme weather events and research showing that specific types of meteorological phenomena are more common in a greenhouse-warmed world, I said:
“It is reasonable to conclude that, in aggregate, the documented increase in extreme events is partially a climate response to global warming, and that global warming has increased the risk of extreme events like those in Russia and Pakistan. On the other hand, there is no scientific basis for arguing that these events have nothing to do with global warming.”
That’s as far as the science permits me to go with this question. We simply cannot know whether any particular weather event was “caused” by climate change. In recent weeks, however, the media have done their all-too-common “he said-she said” routine of finding one source who says the extreme weather of 2010 is because of climate change and another who says it’s not. This is a meaningless argument that distracts us from what we should be thinking about, which is what these events can teach us about our vulnerabilities to climate change.
You might recall earlier this year that a few mistakes were discovered in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 3,000-page assessment report published in 2007. The mistakes did nothing to undermine the report’s major findings: It is unequivocal that the climate is changing, and there is greater than 90 percent certainty that most of the observed warming of the past half-century is due to human influences. Earlier this year, I discussed the errors on E&ETV’s On Point program.