17 July 2023

Electric cars aren’t as green as you think

By Cosima Zaveta

Electric vehicles might be marketed as the green alternative to fossil fuels, but they aren’t nearly as clean as you might imagine.

For while electrification will eliminate exhaust fumes, wear and tear still creates pollution – and as England’s Chief Medical Officer, Sir Chris Whitty, has warned, this can have serious health effects.. 

Like conventional vehicles, electric vehicles emit dangerous pollutants through tyre and brake wear, as well as road surface abrasion. A long-standing focus on our vehicles’ exhaust pipes has earned electric vehicles the title ‘zero emission vehicles’, but this is only right as far as exhaust fumes are concerned. Really, electric vehicles are only ‘zero exhaust emission vehicles’.

‘Wear-and-tear’ pollution mainly comes in the form of coarse and fine particulate matter – otherwise known as PM10 and PM2.5 – emitted into the air we breathe. Imperial College London estimated that reducing PM2.5 concentration by one microgram per cubic metre in England could prevent 50,900 cases of coronary heart disease, 16,500 strokes, 4,200 lung cancers and 9,300 cases of asthma by 2035. 

This form of pollution also has adverse cognitive and psychological effects. The Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants found that exposure to air pollution, especially particulate matter, is associated with dementia and accelerates cognitive decline. Links have also been found between long-term PM2.5 exposure and depression, anxiety and high suicide rates.

All this puts pressure on the NHS and the economy. Worse health means greater demand for healthcare services, taking up resources that could be used for other things if pollution wasn’t so high. As workdays are lost to illness and bad health makes work more difficult, economic productivity and output suffer. In fact, a study of OECD countries shows that a one microgram per cubic metre annual increase in PM2.5 concentration causes a 0.8% reduction in real GDP that same year.

And the natural environment is affected, too. Particulate matter from vehicle tyre abrasion has been estimated to make up one-tenth of all ocean microplastic pollution.

Unfortunately, the development of technical solutions to this problem is still in its early stages. Unlike exhaust fumes, non-exhaust emissions remain largely unknown to the public and largely unregulated: at the moment, no UK or EU emission standard for vehicles regulates non-exhaust emissions, including the latest Euro 6.

However, there are ways to combat non-exhaust pollution from vehicles. This could include technological solutions, such as cleaner tyre composition and lower vehicle weight, as well as regenerative braking and metal brake coating, which have been shown to reduce PM emissions. Ideas like these have a lot of potential, but development is in its infancy. We therefore urgently need greater awareness and better incentives for manufacturers in order to make electric vehicles truly clean. The EU’s proposal to include regulation of non-exhaust emissions of PM in the 2025 Euro 7 standard is a step in the right direction and one the Government should also consider.

If policymakers want to seriously reduce air pollution, they should raise awareness, support technological innovation, and adjust emission standards to protect Britons from non-exhaust pollution.

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Cosima Zaveta is Assistant Researcher at Brightg Blue.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.