Rapid adoption of electric vehicles could save money and avoid 24,000 deaths over 20 years
Reducing air pollution from road transport will save thousands of lives and improve the health of millions of Australians. One of the quickest ways to do this is to accelerate the current slow transition to electric vehicles.
In our published research we evaluated the costs and benefits of a rapid transition. In one scenario, Australia matches the pace of transition of world leaders such as Norway. The modeling estimates this would save around 24,000 lives by 2042. Over time, the resulting greenhouse emission reductions would almost equal Australia’s current total annual emissions from all sources.
We also calculated the total costs and benefits through to 2042. Australia would be about 148 billion Australian dollars better off overall with a rapid transition.
Air pollution causes thousands of deaths
Every year, around 2,600 deaths in Australia are attributed to fine-particle air pollution. The main sources of this pollution are transport and industrial activities such as mining and energy generation.
Vehicle emissions increase respiratory infections as well, particularly in young children. Transport pollution contributes to many diseases, including lung cancer, heart disease, pneumonia, asthma and diabetes. It has also been linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
A 2019 study by the Electric Vehicle Council and Asthma Australia found vehicle emissions had 21,000 serious health impacts each year in New South Wales alone.
A Grattan Institute study last month showed exhaust-pipe pollutants from trucks kill more than 400 Australians every year.
The benefits greatly outweigh the costs
Our new Swinburne University of Technology research evaluated the benefits of a transition to electric vehicles by considering public health, household and emissions reductions savings. We compared the benefits with costs, including charging infrastructure outlay, higher purchase prices for electric vehicles and green energy package costs – for household solar panels, battery storage and charging points.
Each electric vehicle was considered to have been bought along with a green energy package. The package minimizes emissions and demands on electricity grid capacity, while increasing the benefits for households.
The study explored three scenarios:
The main differences between the scenarios are the rate of electric vehicle uptake (once consumers decide to retire their current vehicles) and the degree of government intervention.
The research found the business-as-usual scenario undermines national efforts to reduce the loss of life and cut emissions. It also found the aggressive strategy would have to overcome massive barriers given Australia trails many other countries in adopting electric vehicles.
The accelerated adoption strategy, however, is well aligned with uptake in other nations. Their example shows it can be achieved using progressive policies and incentives.
If implemented, the accelerated scenario could reduce the loss of life by around 24,000 by 2042. The reduction in emissions over this time would be 444 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, or 9 percent of Australia’s emissions from all sources in 2021. The cost would be around 118 billion Australian dollars, less than half of the total benefits of 266 billion Australian dollars.
Putting us on track for emissions targets
The new Climate Change Act mandates targets of a 43 percent cut in emissions by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050. Our research shows effective electric vehicle policies can help achieve these targets.
Such policies can be adopted from nations that have made rapid progress in electrifying their transport sectors. These policies include strict and mandatory fuel efficiency standards, investment in electric vehicle charging stations, and standardization of charging infrastructure. They also include financial incentives to buy and run electric vehicles, and cheap loans to help households and freight operators with purchase costs.
Importantly, these nations recognize that electric vehicles are not a remedy for all transport challenges. They should be complemented by strategies to manage travel demand, reduce the numbers of cars and journeys by car, and improve access to public transport.
We shouldn’t accept so many avoidable deaths
Without a rapid shift to electric vehicles, Australia risks losing at least 1,200 lives a year – deaths that we could avoid – over the next 20 years.
The loss of life would be equivalent to six planes, each carrying 200 passengers, falling out of the sky every year and killing everyone on board. We don’t accept this in air travel, and we should not accept the loss of life to preventable air pollution.
Australia has a feasible rapid pathway to decarbonize its transport sector. Our findings show the benefits to society and the planet are hard to dismiss.
Written by: Hussein Dia, Professor of Future Urban Mobility, Swinburne University of Technology; Christian A. Nygaard, Associate Professor in Social Economics, Swinburne University of Technology; Krzysztof Dembek, Senior Lecturer Social Impact, Swinburne University of Technology, and Magnus Moglia, Associate Professor, Swinburne University of Technology
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