The dirty secret about ‘clean’ electric vehicles

They still emit dangerous particulate matter

AUTOMOBILES EMIT tailpipe carbon emissions, we all know that, and these emissions in the aggregate are now the largest single source of carbon emissions in Massachusetts and many other states, surpassing the energy and building sectors.

Efforts to reduce transportation sector emissions have rightly taken center stage as a matter of public policy, but the Commonwealth’s efforts to decarbonize are largely designed around the continuation of today’s highly auto-centric public realm.

The approach being taken by Massachusetts places near-exclusive emphasis on transitioning the statewide vehicular fleet to electric-powered vehicles. But this approach, which certainly will have the effect of reducing tailpipe carbon emissions, will on its own do nothing to address the public health consequences associated with the significant other emissions and air pollution caused by an auto-centric society.

A report published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine underscored a point many of us have been making for some time. In a moment when a national commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions is encouraging massive investments in electric vehicles and EV charging infrastructure, we may be missing the forest for the trees.

The report focused on what’s called particulate matter emissions — PM 2.5 in the scientific jargon. It turns out that PM 2.5 is a serious threat to public health, and we are largely failing to do anything about it as, in our zeal to shift everyone to an electric vehicle, we double down on every other negative externality of auto mobility. PM 2.5 is emitted during tire and brake friction, and these emissions will continue to be present when we are all driving our “clean” EVs.

The New England Journal of Medicine report focused on the impacts of exposure to PM2.5 in vulnerable communities, specifically communities of color and low-income communities. What it found ought to give everyone reading this, and every political leader in Massachusetts, pause:

“Structural racism and social exclusion of low-income Americans are associated with inequities in both exposure and susceptibility to PM2.5. For example, exposure inequities caused by ‘disparate siting,’ in which roadways and pollution-emitting facilities are disproportionately built in Black or low-income communities (among other marginalized groups), are well documented and observed in both urban and rural areas. Consequently, although Black Americans produce proportionally less air pollution than White Americans, they breathe more of it. Our finding of differences in PM2.5 exposure according to income among Black Americans but not White Americans suggests that race (and thus structural racism) is more salient than income in driving inequities in PM2.5 exposure.”  

In other words, not only are we continuing to foul our nest, we are also doing so in a disproportionately damaging way to people of color and people with lower incomes.

A 2020 report by Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health points in the same direction, noting that communities with long-term exposure to PM 2.5 had a 15 percent higher rate of COVID mortality.

Our state’s near-exclusive reliance on electric vehicles as a decarbonization strategy fails utterly to take into account these significant public health issues, and, as a result, is failing all of us, and especially the most vulnerable residents of the Commonwealth.

The reality, the dirty little secret, is that EVs are not actually “clean,” but (except for their zero carbon tailpipe emissions) are still massive contributors to both carbon and PM2.5 emissions. From a carbon perspective, almost all of the infrastructure associated with an EV – the roadway pavement, parking facilities, tires, you name it – is highly carbon intensive. Add in the carbon intensity of producing the car and battery and getting the car from its place of manufacture to your friendly auto dealer, your EV’s carbon footprint is larger than anyone would like to admit.

I do not oppose the transition to electric vehicles. Indeed, I support it and hope to own one myself. But we have to be honest with one another: the near-total focus on them is highly misplaced and unlikely to achieve the climate goals people expect to achieve in a reasonable timeframe. The best way to achieve short-term, durable reductions in both carbon emissions and PM 2.5 is to encourage more people to leave their cars and take one or more modes of sustainable transportation, and that means more transit and more cycling and walking. In the urban context, these goals ought to be highly achievable if we set our minds and our policies and our public expenditures toward it.

We know that there is a time value to carbon reductions, that even smaller reductions in emissions in the short term are more valuable than projected emissions in the long term. This is because the effect of emissions is cumulative.

Investments and strategies that induce mode shift to transit and cycling are largely within the power of state and municipal leaders, and such policies will achieve real benefits in both reducing urban carbon emissions and urban particulate matter emissions. When people like me call for investments in initiatives like the Red-Blue Connector, regional rail, or free bus, we do so in part because these investments will encourage more people to shift to sustainability and have measurably positive impacts on our public health as well as our economy. And they will provide those benefits more equitably than the transition to electric vehicles.

Gov. Maura Healey has laudably elevated climate to the forefront and appointed a cabinet level leader for the Commonwealth’s climate portfolio. In the Legislature, Sen. Michael Barrett of Lexington has taken action to craft and fashion a significant climate bill and enact it into law. The Commonwealth’s efforts to encourage transit-oriented development through the MBTA Communities law, which requires municipalities to zone for multi-family housing near public transit nodes, is also an important move in the right direction.

What I have not yet seen, from anyone in state government dealing with these issues, is a strong commitment to making a mode shift to sustainable mobility a properly funded cornerstone of state policy. That commitment would be demonstrated by enforceable commitments to, and ample new funding for, replacing diesel locomotives with electric multiple units, and improving transit access to Logan Airport and MGH by connecting the Red and Blue Lines. It would include new funding commitments for municipalities to build more dedicated bus lanes and protected cycling lanes. It would encourage more people to take bus transit by making every MBTA and regional transit authority bus in the state free (yes, we can easily afford this, and yes, bus fares suppress ridership).

We soon will see whether state officials take these transit and sustainability investments seriously, when the MBTA finalizes its draft capital investment plan, or CIP. The CIP guides investments over the next five years, and in its current draft form is seriously deficient.

The plan fails to properly fund the advancement of the Red-Blue Connector, which would require more than double the currently proposed $15 million. This failure flies in the face of what Healey has said she is committed to, and it flies in the face of what the mayor of Boston has embraced as an important initiative. It also ignores the reality that Mass General Hospital wants this connection and is currently building a new clinical center on Cambridge Street that will be supported by this connection.

The CIP also fails to advance regional rail by failing to invest in electric multiple units to replace the current dirty diesel locomotive fleet. The CIP has great language that declares it is advancing the phase 1 regional rail transformation effort, but when you dig into the details, there’s “no there there.”

We should be able to fund and electrify the Providence Line and the Fairmount Line by the end of Healey’s first term, but we won’t if the T sticks to the current draft CIP. The final CIP will be a critical first test for the new general manager of the MBTA.

The Commonwealth has the money to make these investments and policy changes. The question is: do we have the political will? I hope we do, because none of what I am saying here is unknown to decision makers. Massachusetts should lead by rejecting an EV-only approach to decarbonization that ignores the public health consequences of an intractably auto-centric urban public realm.

Public policy in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts needs to reflect the science of particulate emissions, and the reality that the transition to EVs, while necessary and inevitable, will not solve the PM 2.5 emissions problem. Investments in transit, rail, and the redesign of the urban streetscape can be highly effective ways to reduce carbon and PM 2.5 emissions, improving the quality of life for everyone who lives in Metro Boston.

I look forward to supporting decision makers who address these issues directly and effectively, with the funding and policy commitments that turn rhetoric into reality. That’s not happening now.

James Aloisi is a former state transportation secretary and a member of the TransitMatters board.