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Let’s make smog-free skies the new normal
Posted on April 21, 2020 by Charles Morris
People all over the world are reporting that the skies have cleared dramatically over the last few weeks. In the northern Indian state of Punjab, the Himalayan mountains are now visible from more than 100 miles away—some locals say they haven't seen the peaks in 30 years. Aerial photos of Los Angeles show a crystal-clear view of the skyline that none of us have ever witnessed—surely these pix were cleaned up with Photoshop?
Above: Cars with zero tailpipe emissions, like the Tesla Model S, can help contribute to a cleaner environment (Flickr: anisoboy)
No, they weren’t. They’re the result of reduced traffic and manufacturing activity due to the pandemic-induced lockdown. As Dan Neil writes in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, US passenger-vehicle traffic volume dropped 30% in March. During the same time period, emissions and carbon monoxide over New York City dropped more than 50%. In Southern California, levels of particulate matter fell by 40%.
Cleaner air is not just aesthetically pleasing. It could also greatly reduce the incidence of lung and heart disease—and quite possibly reduce the severity of future outbreaks of airborne diseases. As a growing number of people are acknowledging (I don’t say “learning,” because, after all, this is not a new revelation), if we want to have cleaner air, we know how to get it—stop burning fossil fuels.
Dan Neil, the WSJ’s resident automotive authority, is a convert to Tesla, but he’s no starry-eyed liberal—he describes himself as “a pro-business, for-profit capitalist, almost innately centrist; and compared with the protectionists and market manipulators in DC…Milton frickin’ Friedman.” And he’s advocating “a national stimulus program embracing transportation electrification funded by a gas tax.”
Neil notes that many governments around the world have committed to banning internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles within 20 years—countries and regions that have proposed bans represent about 85% of the global light-vehicle market. The reason the ICE has fallen out of favor: “because its combustion products make people [get] sick and die.”
Greenhouse gas emissions get most of the press, but other pollutants are responsible for immediate impacts on human health, and for skies cloudy with smog: hydrocarbons, diesel particulate matter, nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide, benzene and volatile organic compounds. The World Health Organization estimates that air pollution caused 4.2 million premature deaths in 2016.
Above: Could COVID-19 help the public better understand the benefits of less pollution and help the transition to EVs? (YouTube: Velocity5)
Neil notes that EV skeptics argue that powering vehicles with grid electricity merely moves the pollution somewhere else. In fact, this “long tailpipe” argument has been debunked by dozens of studies (here's one of the most recent). Even if an EV were 100% powered by coal-generated electricity, it would still produce less emissions than a typical legacy vehicle, and as the grid becomes cleaner, so do EVs. Furthermore, Neil points out that many megacities, including Beijing, Los Angeles and Mexico City, have topographies that concentrate airborne pollutants. Even if EVs did only move air pollution from densely-populated cities to outlying industrial areas, that would still be a win for human health.
In Europe, China and some US states, policymakers are pushing to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to e-mobility, and again, the original motivation was not so much greenhouse gas emissions as ground-level air pollution. Ironically, even Stuttgart (the home of Mercedes-Benz) and Munich (the home of BMW), have banned older, high-emitting cars, and established low-emission zones.
In the US, the Trump administration is pushing things the other way, rolling back federal fuel economy standards and revoking the authority of California and other states to set stricter limits. Many fear that this will seriously harm the competitive position of the US auto industry (and forfeit the game to Tesla). As Mr. Neil points out, global automakers have begun to shift investment to EVs—not only R&D, but scaling up battery production, securing supplies of key components and building out charging infrastructure. “Meanwhile, technical development of IC platforms and powertrains has all but stopped. What you are seeing on dealer lots now is effectively obsolete. With the bottom falling out of the market, legacy car makers don’t need help defending the rump of a failing business model. They need help selling EVs.”
Neil’s preferred solution is “a dedicated gas tax.” I feel that a wellhead carbon tax, which would tax all carbon-based fuels at the source, thus spreading the costs throughout the supply chain, would be a more efficient solution. In fact, most European countries already have some form of carbon tax, although copious loopholes limit their effectiveness. Of course, anyone familiar with US politics understands that anything called a “tax” is a non-starter in our country, at least at the moment.
Neil offers a couple of other ideas that have better chances of being implemented. Rewriting and expanding the federal EV tax credit program could be effective, but only if the tax credit were transformed to a cash discount that dealers could offer to buyers at the time of sale—the current system benefits only a small number of affluent taxpayers. An EV Cash for Clunkers program could also help, if it were focused on encouraging EV sales, unlike the Cash for Clunkers program Congress enacted in 2008, which evolved into a stimulus program for the auto industry—many beneficiaries traded older cars for new SUVs that were only slightly more efficient.