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Is air pollution an issue for electric vehicles?
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Is air pollution an issue for electric vehicles?

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Toxic air pollution has been a prevalent issue in urban areas since the Industrial Revolution. It consists of harmful particles that can create a dense “pea-soup” like cover, making it hard to see and breathe. However, many developed cities have successfully reduced this hazardous smog by implementing cleaner car engines and relocating factories. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case for poorer cities.

There is a belief that transitioning to electric cars may undo some of the environmental progress made. The added weight of these vehicles and the particles produced from friction may lead to trade-offs between cleaner air and zero carbon emissions.

The Guardian’s EV mythbusters series investigates various allegations surrounding electric vehicles (EVs), including concerns about greenhouse gas emissions and battery safety, as well as the possibility of hydrogen becoming more popular than EVs. The most recent installment addresses the question: do electric cars contribute to air pollution?

The claim

Electric vehicles eliminate engine emissions completely, but the use of friction in their brakes and tires can still lead to the breakdown of materials and potential environmental damage. There are concerns that the transition to heavier EVs may contribute to an increase in overall air pollution due to increased wear and tear.

In 2022, the environment minister of the UK at that time, George Eustice, expressed doubts in parliament about the improvements in air quality. He mentioned that there are some who believe that due to the wear and tear on roads and the heaviness of vehicles, the improvements may not be as significant as hoped. However, the exact impact is currently uncertain.

According to the Daily Mail and the Sun, electric cars have a “dirty secret” of tire pollution and can actually produce more pollution than traditional petrol and diesel cars. EV drivers have been warned about this issue.

The science

Electric vehicles do not utilize fossil fuels directly. If they are produced using only zero-carbon energy sources, they would not emit any pollutants. This includes carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, and a mixture of carbon, metals, and unburnt hydrocarbons commonly found in urban areas. However, fossil fuel power plants are still a concern for charging electric cars, although they are typically located outside of densely populated areas in wealthier countries.

Unfortunately, every vehicle emits particulate matter (PM) due to the friction of brakes, tires, and roads, resulting in a dirty residue of pollution in the atmosphere and on the earth’s surface. This type of pollution contains dangerous chemicals, including one additive that has been linked to the mass mortality of coho salmon on the west coast of the United States.

A disc brake on vehicle

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According to battery chemist Euan McTurk, electric vehicles tend to emit less particulate matter due to their use of regenerative brakes for stopping. McTurk, who has studied the issue for the RAC, also noted that EV brakes have a slower rate of wear.

However, there is a matter to be addressed regarding electric cars and their impact on roads and tires due to their increased weight, which leads to more wear and tear. According to Transport & Environment, a campaign group, the average weight of EVs is about 400kg heavier due to the bulky batteries they contain.

A number of statements regarding electric vehicles contributing to air pollution cite data from Emissions Analytics, a privately-owned company. According to its creator, Nick Molden, their research indicates that particulate emissions from EVs can be up to 1,850 times higher than those from modern car exhausts, which have improved due to regulations. However, it is important to note that this claim has not been verified by scientific experts and the automotive industry has raised objections to the findings.

Importantly, all vehicles emit these harmful substances – not just electric models. It is challenging to measure minuscule particles, and there are only a limited number of studies comparing different types of cars. This creates uncertainty regarding whether the additional weight of electric vehicle batteries will lead to increased particulate pollution.

Range Rover SUV car at an electric charging pointView image in fullscreen

Continental, a tire manufacturer based in Germany, stated that driving style and road curves have a greater impact on tire wear than vehicle and tire design. This point has also been made by Molden. A spokesperson from Continental stated, “In general, electric vehicles do not emit more particles than a similar car with an internal combustion engine solely due to the added weight of the battery.”

Many factors play a role in any calculation, but there have been attempts to calculate it all. In 2020, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development conducted a study and estimated that the rise in electric vehicle usage will only slightly decrease overall PM emissions from road traffic in the coming years. The study also revealed that heavier electric cars cause slightly more wear on roads and tires, resulting in an increase of larger PM 10 particles and smaller PM 2.5 particles. However, when taking into account engine pollution, petrol and diesel cars were found to have slightly worse emissions.

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Any caveats?

Most experts agree that the pollution caused by tires is still harmful. Numerous researchers argue that smaller particles of PM 2.5 are more detrimental because they can easily enter the bloodstream and reach the brain or placenta.

Tyre manufacturers are considering changes to their chemical compositions. The Tyre Collective, a startup based in the UK, has proposed a sophisticated solution: an electrostatic device that can collect tire particles, which could potentially be reused in the production of new tires.

According to the founder of the Tyre Collective, Hanson Cheng, tyre degradation has long been a concern that has been overlooked. It is not accurate to label a vehicle as zero-emission if it still produces non-exhaust emissions.

A person points with his index finger to a car tire worn out by time and useView image in fullscreen

If the trend of SUVs continues, both petrol and electric vehicles will contribute to increased tyre pollution. This is due to the growing size and weight of cars, which will also have a negative impact on carbon emissions and energy efficiency.

Transport & Environment’s manager for vehicle emissions and air quality, Anna Krajinska, stated that there is no definitive proof regarding the impact of electric cars on particulate emissions. However, she also emphasized the importance of reducing the transition to SUVs.

The verdict

The car industry must address pollution concerns. With the rise of the end of the internal combustion engine, there will likely be increased attention on particulate pollution caused by tire wear, as it is one of the main sources of pollution while driving. This could greatly improve the health of humans, plants, and animals.

Heavy cars undoubtedly result in increased production of tyre particles, and electric cars, currently being heavier than their counterparts, are no exception. However, the amount of tyre pollution emitted by petrol, diesel, and electric cars seems to be similar. Despite this, the advantages of transitioning to electric cars, especially the reduction of carbon emissions, are significant.

Reducing air pollution is a significant issue, but it does not seem to justify postponing the shift to electric vehicles.

Source: theguardian.com