EV proponents argue that one of the biggest benefits in the switch to all-electric powertrains is a substantial decrease in local emissions, leading to cleaner air. However, according to a recent study, the cleaner air associated with more widespread EV adoption disproportionally benefits affluent neighborhoods.
The insight was highlighted in a report from BNN Bloomberg, which cites a study conducted by researchers from the University of California at Berkeley, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Miami.
According to the report, researchers examined the geographic distribution of over 400,000 EV rebates issued in California between 2010 and 2021. Researchers also modeled estimated emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and sulfur dioxide, as well as the particulate matter (PM 2.5) typically associated with internal combustion engine exhaust, brakes, tires, and power plants. Larger, heavier EVs with larger battery packs and higher range can create additional PM2.5 pollution compared to smaller, lighter EVs due to increased brake and tire degradation.
The research indicates that communities classified as disadvantaged received just 7 percent of the state EV incentives, while communities classified as least disadvantaged claimed 46 percent of the rebates. Additionally, wealthier communities saw a reduction in PM2.5 emissions that was four times greater than that in disadvantaged communities, with 17 percent of disadvantaged communities actually seeing a rise in PM2.5 pollution. Those communities where PM2.5 pollution increased are located near 39 percent of California’s fossil fuel power plants.
“These communities receive far fewer rebates and therefore see substantially less air quality improvement as a result of decreased tailpipe emissions,” said the lead author of the study and PhD student at U.C. Berkeley, Jaye Mejía-Duwan. Mejía-Duwan also indicated that disadvantaged communities can often suffer increased power plant pollution as a result of increased EV charging in wealthier communities.
Back in 201, California revised its EV rebate program to limit participation by high-income households earning more than $200,000, while expanding refunds for low-income households from $2,000 to $7,500. Nevertheless, researchers determined that the revisions had only a marginal impact on the percentage of incentives awarded to disadvantaged communities.
“Replacing conventional vehicles with electric vehicles is very helpful in terms of reducing statewide carbon dioxide emissions,” Mejía-Duwan said. “But these kinds of technological solutions don’t actually change the underlying political, social and economic structures that allow this inequity to exist and be perpetuated.”