Electric Vehicles and Clean Energy Will Deliver $1.2 Trillion in Public Health Benefits Alone

Recently published data from The American Lung Association shows that in addition to creating jobs and addressing the climate crisis, accelerating the shift to EVs and clean energy will save trillions of dollars and more than 100,000 lives over 30 years.

Stan Cross | April 28, 2022 | Clean Transportation, Electric Vehicles

The American Lung Association (Lung Association)’s Zeroing in on Healthy Air assessment unpacks the public health and economic consequences of pollution from transportation and electricity generation and the opportunities to solve these pollution problems. The Lung Association’s assessment confirms the public health impact of emissions from car, truck, and bus tailpipes and power plant smokestacks — underscoring what we already know: that breathing polluted air costs us money, makes us sicker, and causes us to die sooner.

We all breathe, but we don’t all breathe the same air

The more polluted the air you breathe, the worse the health impacts. Lung Association’s assessment highlights the fact that communities in proximity of transportation hubs such as highways, ports, railyards, and warehouses, as well as those near fossil fuel-burning power plants, are at greater risk. Additional transportation fuel-related upstream health burdens are incurred in communities near oil and gas extractions sites, refineries, and local gas stations, all of which generate toxic air pollution; ditto for communities in the upstream wake of electricity production impacted by the extraction of coal, oil, and gas and the transportation of those fuels.

Source: American Lung Association, Zeroing in on Healthy Air, The Public Health Need for Zero Emissions, Page 5

The most striking part of the assessment is the financial implications of fixing these public health problems. Suppose America succeeds at electrifying cars, trucks, and buses and decarbonizing electricity generation through the deployment of solutions like solar panels, windmills, and battery storage over the coming decades: In that case, the nation stands to gain $1.2 trillion in public health benefits.

Over the next 30 years, the Southeast could see $206.4 billion in health benefits, avoid 18,640 premature deaths, and avoid losing over 2 million productive workdays across our regional economy.

Source: American Lung Association, Zeroing in on Healthy Air, Southeast State Results: Public Health Benefits, Page 9

Along with these benefits and avoided costs, additional economic gains are made from transitioning to electric transportation and clean energy. Just looking at the transition to electric transportation underway: SACE analyzed what it costs the Southeast to fuel transportation with gas and diesel versus electricity in our report, “Retained Transportation Fuel Spending in the Southeast: Electric vs. Internal Combustion Vehicles.” We found that the region imports 100% of the gas and diesel that powers internal combustion engines. These liquid fuels are much more expensive than the in-state-generated electricity used to power electric vehicles. When consumers fill up at the pump, two-thirds of every dollar spent leaves the region for oil-rich states and countries. When consumers plug in to charge their electric vehicle, the equation flips, and two-thirds of every dollar spent stays in the regional economy. If every car, truck, and bus were electric today, the Southeast would retain an extra $47 billion annually, boosting the region’s economy.

To better understand where the greatest opportunities lie to manifest a cleaner, safer, and more prosperous future, we posed questions to Will Barrett, Lung Association’s National Senior Director for Clean Air Advocacy and the assessment’s lead author. Here’s what he had to say:

What are the most urgent measures we should be taking today to improve the health of communities most burdened by air pollution?

There are measures at all levels of government that need to be taken up to drive a nationwide transition to zero-emission transportation and electricity, along with stronger investments in zero-emission technologies. For example, California is now considering proposals to set 100 percent sales targets for passenger vehicles and heavy-duty trucks. The state must set the strongest possible standards and must set the stage for other states to follow.

Key to both measures will be ensuring a strong early trajectory and wide base of vehicles covered, as well as ensuring that the benefits are experienced equitably in communities most impacted by pollution today.

Federally, agencies must move forward with stronger rules to accelerate the national transition to zero emissions in the energy and transportation sectors.

Looking at the trend data, what are some indicators that stand out to you that we will achieve healthier air?

We see impressive growth in the market for zero-emission technologies, growth in the cost benefits of reducing dependence on combustion, and the fact that more US states continue to adopt the policies ushering the broad transition to zero-emissions. Six US states have now adopted the Advanced Clean Trucks rule – this may seem like a small number, but these are large states, and the original policy was only made final one year ago. That opened the floodgates for other states to formally adopt the rules and we saw them waiting in line to do so.

We continue to see more states moving toward adoption – Colorado, Nevada, and Connecticut are among states building toward zero-emission truck standards to complement their ZE passenger vehicle standards. These actions build certainty for the market in more markets and help drive more investment and innovation that in the end will spur cleaner air and healthier communities.

How can we better communicate about the future $1.7 trillion in avoided climate costs to accelerate investment today in zero-emissions transportation and electricity generation?

When we put the climate crisis in terms of what is driving it in our country, in our communities, we think it helps people to understand that the solutions are also close to home. Climate can seem like a massive and overwhelming concept, but the costs can hit very close to home, especially by impacting people’s health and safety. The $1.7 trillion in global climate benefits we highlight in our report is in addition to the $1.2 trillion in public health benefits the nation will see from the transition to zero-emission vehicles and electricity. By putting information out about what we have to gain in terms of local health benefits we are also helping to explain the costs of inaction to health in our community.

In addition to substantive policies that reduce vehicle tailpipe emissions and expand clean energy like solar and wind, what role do you think urban planning has in addressing inequitable decisions of the past?

Ultimately, like energy and transportation investments, land use decisions are public health decisions. Right now, the growth in vehicle miles traveled is increasing when we need to see increases in alternatives to driving and associated pollution. This increase in driving really threatens to curb the benefits of zero-emission technologies, or simply fill inefficient freeways with less polluting vehicles, but not solve the problems of sprawl and cumulative health burdens in communities that were carved up by freeway expansion.

There is no question that decades of racist land use and transportation planning have built many of the inequitable outcomes seen today in terms of pollution exposures, negative health consequences and limited mobility options. Recent studies have shown that the history of redlining communities has increased disparities in pollution burden and environmental injustices.

When it comes to no-brainer transportation solutions like electrifying our postal fleet and school buses to ensure our federal workers and children breathe clean air, why do you think there is resistance?

The fossil fuel industry continues to fight the transition away from combustion. The good news is that people support the transition to zero-emission heavy-duty vehicles. Just last year, the Lung Association released a poll that found that by a more-than-three-to-one margin, voters support the federal government implementing policies that support a transition to zero-emission vehicles. 70% of voters supported the federal government requiring that by 2040 all new freight trucks, buses and delivery vans sold in the U.S. must produce zero tailpipe emissions.

The Lung Association continues to advocate for the widespread transition to zero-emission school buses, which are a win on multiple bottom lines. Certainly, we saw major efforts that put more funding on the table for combustion school buses that will be on the road for generations of more kids when we need to be accelerating the shift to zero-emissions.

Just taking school buses as an example, there is a major health benefit to ditching diesel for both the kids and staff on the bus, but also the kids, staff and parents at the school. There’s a major climate benefit from eliminating the pollution from that bus and upstream. There’s a cost saving to the school in terms of reducing maintenance and fueling.

How can we get more citizens to understand and advocate for policy changes that would result in better health outcomes?

In the simplest terms, we can explain the problem as a health problem, and offer a solution. For example, the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2022 report was released in April 2022 and noted that more than 4 in 10 Americans live in a community impacted by unhealthy air. We also note that a person of color in the US is 3.6 times more likely to live in a community with the worst pollution in the United States. The challenges seem daunting, but we also note in our Zeroing in on Healthy Air report that the shift to zero-emissions can save 110,000 lives across America by cleaning the air, that the counties in the US with the highest percent populations of color stand to see outsized benefits from this transition.

We also note that the impacts of unhealthy air are borne by our children who are still growing and developing. When that growth and development happens in an environment with unhealthy air, those are real health impacts that we’re concerned about – that every family would be concerned about. When you think about the scale of the climate crisis impacting children today, grandchildren tomorrow, and the potential for a world with more pollution and health challenges, we think that is a compelling way to explain the stakes.

Delaying the electric transportation transition denies tangible benefits

The public health impacts of dirty transportation and electricity generation translate directly into tangible benefits, benefits that we can realize by switching to clean energy and electric vehicles. We have the necessary technologies to make this switch, and doing so makes economic sense. In fact, we are passing up a huge economic opportunity every day we delay the transition. What’s missing is political will and consumer awareness. We need to hold elected officials accountable to act on the scientific and financial data that point to the urgent opportunity and need for economy-wide decarbonization. And we need to educate consumers and provide the necessary incentives to encourage purchasing goods and services that support a cleaner, safer, and more prosperous future. There is a lot at stake and significant opportunities to seize.

Electrify the South​ is a Southern Alliance for Clean Energy program that leverages research, advocacy, and outreach to promote renewable energy and accelerate ​the ​equitable ​transition to ​electric transportation throughout the Southeast. Visit ElectrifytheSouth.org to learn more and connect with us.

Stan Cross
Stan joined the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy in 2019. Stan leads SACE’s electric transportation policy, utility reform, and program implementation across the Southeast. Previously, Stan led and co-founded Brightfield…
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