This is why electric cars won't stop air pollution

Greenhouse gases such as CO2 and methane cause climate change, while various localised air pollutants cause respiratory disease.

These two quite separate issues are often confused. Electric cars will reduce our contribution to climate change, assuming we increase renewable energy generation to meet the higher demand. Replacing internal combustion engines with electric motors will also reduce some of the urban air pollutants that cause localised health risks. However, one of the biggest contributors to respiratory disease, particulate matter (PM), is not predominantly produced by the combustion of fossil fuels. The erosion of tyres and brake pads, as well as road dust, are also major sources of PM. Changing from internal combustion engines to electric motors will not reduce these sources of particulates.

“The latest research is indicating that non-tailpipe PM emissions are now 55-60% of vehicle emissions and this proportion will continue to grow with electrification of the fleet,” said Professor Frank Kelly of King’s College London, chair of the UK government’s Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants. “Due to the uncertainties about the emission factors for each source it is difficult to state how many deaths are caused by non-tailpipe particulate matter,” said Kelly. “As a very rough estimate, road transport is responsible for 50% of PM emissions in cities and the latest research is showing that non-exhaust emissions are now over 50% of vehicle PM emissions. This suggests that non-tailpipe PM is responsible for between 7,000 and 8,000 premature deaths a year.”  

The rapid development of electric vehicles can give the impression that road transport is becoming sustainable. Electric cars are sometimes seen as a panacea for the environmental impact of transport. They are not. 

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