Researchers at the University of Tennessee (UT) found that pollution from Chinese electric cars could be more harmful to health than that of gasoline vehicles. The findings were published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
Chris Cherry, assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering at the Knoxville-based university, along with graduate student Shuguang Ji, focused their research on 34 major Chinese cities where they analyzed emissions and environmental health impacts of five vehicles.
“What Cherry and his team found defies conventional logic: electric cars cause much more overall harmful particulate matter pollution than gasoline cars,” states a press release.
“An implicit assumption has been that air quality and health impacts are lower for electric vehicles than for conventional vehicles,” Cherry said. “Our findings challenge that by comparing what is emitted by vehicle use to what people are actually exposed to.”
Cherry noted that before this, studies “have only examined environmental impacts by comparing emission factors or greenhouse gas emissions.”
The problem is that in China, 85 percent of electricity being produced comes from fossil fuels, and of that, close to 90 percent is from coal. Thus, the researchers “discovered that the power generated in China to operate electric vehicles emit fine particles at a much higher rate than gasoline vehicles.”
The “fine particles” mentioned above include acids, organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles—which are also released through the combustion of fossil fuels.
They note that since the power plants are often further from heavily populated areas, people may breathe less of the fumes from the plants than from cars. Yet, “the rate isn’t low enough to level the playing field between the vehicles. In terms of air pollution impacts, electric cars are more harmful to public health per kilometer traveled in China than conventional vehicles,” states the release.
Research was conducted by estimating health impacts in China based on data of overall emissions and emission rates for five types of vehicles: gasoline and diesel cars, diesel buses, and electric bikes and cars. They then calculated how much of this the local population would inhale.
“Our calculations show that an increase in electric bike usage improves air quality and environmental health by displacing the use of other more polluting modes of transportation,” Cherry said. “E-bikes, which are battery-powered, continue to be an environmentally friendly and efficient mode of transportation.”
Since the power plants are often further from the cities, “about half of the urban emissions are inhaled by rural populations, who generally have lower incomes,” states the press release.