Air quality improvements from EVs concentrated in wealthy areas

May 18, 2023
A closeup photo of a white electric vehicle charging.

Electric vehicles are often touted as a more environmentally friendly alternative to gas-powered cars, making them a cornerstone of California’s ambitious climate and emissions reduction goals. However, a recent study published in PLOS Climate suggests that existing environmental inequalities may worsen as motorists continue to adopt these cleaner alternatives.

While vehicle electrification between 2010 and 2021 reduced the emission of criteria air pollutants in wealthy neighborhoods,  emissions levels in disadvantaged communities—where residents are less likely to purchase electric cars—remained the same or worsened. Jaye Mejía-Duwan, a graduate student in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, was the study’s lead author.

The authors analyzed more than 400,000 rebates issued by California’s Clean Vehicle Rebate Project—which offers qualifying residents up to $7,500 to buy or lease eligible electric cars or other zero-emissions vehicles—to estimate the location and extent of emissions reductions across each census tract. 

They found that overall, carbon emissions decreased as more electric vehicles hit the road, but the benefits were largely concentrated in wealthier areas. The study also notes that the concentration of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) increased in 17 percent of California’s disadvantaged communities, which received less than one-tenth of all Clean Vehicle rebates.

Disadvantaged communities are home to half of California’s natural gas power plants, according to Mejía-Duwan, which means the state’s wealthy residents are less likely to be affected by the emissions associated with charging an increasingly electrified vehicle fleet.

“Electric vehicles are often incorrectly referred to as zero-emissions vehicles,” Mejía-Duwan told Inverse, but in reality, the vehicles “are actually only as clean as the underlying grid from which their electricity is sourced.

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