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Electric vehicles would help both North Carolina's climate and public health, report says

An electric vehicle at a charging station.
David Boraks

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Switching to electric vehicles would not only cut the pollution that causes global warming, but also improve public health. The American Lung Association says in a new report that the elimination of tailpipe emissions coupled with a switch to clean energy to charge EVs could prevent a cumulative 89,300 premature deaths, 2.2 million asthma attacks and $978 billion in public health costs nationwide between 2020 and 2050.

In "Driving to Clean Air: Health Benefits of Zero-Emission Cars and Electricity," the association arrived at these estimates based on two key assumptions: that by 2035 all new U.S. vehicles sold will be zero-emission and that the nation's energy system will eliminate fossil fuels by 2035.

In that theoretical scenario of 100% EVs and 100% fossil-free electricity, North Carolina could see:

  • $29.4 billion in health care cost savings.
  • 2,680 prevented premature deaths.
  • And 64,800 avoided asthma attacks. The changes would avoid 317,000 lost work days, the report estimates.

South Carolina would avoid:

  • Public health costs of $13.6 billion.
  • 1,250 premature deaths.
  • 25,600 asthma attacks and 123,000 lost work days.

Those 2035 goals seem far-fetched, given the slow pace of EV adoption (less than 1% of all cars and trucks on the road were EVs last year in North Carolina) and coal-fired power plant retirements, as well as plans by utilities such as Duke Energy to expand the use of gas-fired power plants in the coming years. But the association says incentives are growing, in part because of new federal funding under the Inflation Reduction Act and other legislation. Meanwhile, state and federal officials are considering new vehicle standards that would mandate cuts in harmful emissions.

"Too many communities across the U.S. deal with high levels of dangerous pollution from nearby highways and other pollution hot spots. In addition, the transportation sector is the nation’s biggest source of carbon pollution that drives climate change and associated public health harms. This is an urgent health issue for millions of people in the U.S.,” Harold Wimmer, president and CEO of the American Lung Association, said in a press release.

Other research by the association estimates that 20 million Americans, or 35% of the population, live in areas with dangerous levels of pollutants such as ozone or particle pollution. People of color are far more likely to live with air pollution than white people. (The association recently gave Mecklenburg County an "F" for air quality this year.)

California and other states have already adopted standards that require an eventual shift to EVs. North Carolina and South Carolina have not done so.

The association urges the federal Environmental Protection Agency and states to adopt stricter emissions standards.

"Major improvements in public health would result from the transition to zero-emission technologies in the passenger transportation and electricity generation sectors. This transition represents a critical public health intervention to reduce harmful pollutants and prevent health emergencies," the report's conclusion says.

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David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.
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