Politics Analysis

Electric vehicle transition has huge health benefits

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Electric vehicles reduce harmful emissions, saving us and the environment (Screenshot via YouTube)

A transition to electric vehicles would not only help the environment but provide personal health benefits as well, writes Dr David Shearman.

AT A TIME when a spate of new coal and gas mines are being planned around the world and in Australia, and when science tells us time is now short to avoid climate tipping points, rational society must aim to urgently reduce greenhouse emissions where it can.

The transition to electric vehicles (EVs) offers one such possibility as transport causes 19% of national emissions and cars 85% of these. Some countries such as Norway are 74% along their journey to transition. The U.S. plans a 50% transition within a decade whereas Australia with 2% to date is only just embarking on a National Electric Vehicle Strategy. A national target of 76% by 2030 as recommended by Climateworks seems feasible.

To drive the transition, it is important we detail the many benefits additional to the reduction of greenhouse emissions. These are the prevention of death and illness from air pollution which will give relief to our overworked health services and provide the opportunity to plan green and healthy cities.

Long-term exposure to toxic gas and particulate pollution in Australia leads to 2,500-3,000 premature deaths and illnesses and costs Australians as much as $24 billion per annum. In most Australian towns and cities, vehicular pollution is the main cause.

Vehicular air pollutants are inhaled and pass through the lungs into all organs in the body where they cause heart diseases and heart attacks, stroke, cancer and diabetes. Children are prone to asthma, poor lung development neuro-developmental disorders, premature and underweight birth. 

Air pollution causes a decline in mental ability and dementia in older people. Many studies indicate those living near main roads suffer more cognitive decline and dementia than those living more than 300 metres away.

Successive federal governments carry much of the responsibility for these illnesses by failing to enact better air quality standards.  

Also a parallel health issue, fuel efficiency standards (sometimes called vehicle CO2 standards, fuel economy standards or CO2 emissions standards), which regulate the average CO2 emissions from a vehicle fleet, need urgent improvement. Their absence makes Australia a low priority for vehicular manufacture and this in turn will delay reduction in greenhouse emissions.

Australia also has inadequate noxious emissions standards which are set lower than in most comparable countries. Their improvement could also reduce air pollution and result in health benefits.

One has to question the reasons for these poor standards and the resulting deaths being ignored by governments for many years. No doubt deals have been done and one is left to suggest that specific aspects of this topic may need referral to the forthcoming National Anti-Corruption Commission.

A major impediment to a coordinated approach to these interrelated problems is the existence of government departments as enclosed silos or ministries. As society becomes more complex, so does the needed interaction between silos.

In 2007, South Australia, to its credit, sought to address this problem with a South Australian Health in All Policies (SA HiAP) approach intended to stimulate cross-sector policy activity to address the social determinants of health to improve population wellbeing and reduce health inequities.

By 2017, it was found that some support existed for progressing an equity agenda through SA HiAP, but subsequent economic pressures resulted in the government narrowing its priorities to economic goals which remain today.

Currently, a Select Committee of the SA Legislative Council has been inquiring into and will report on Public and Active Transport. In the Terms of Reference, the effect of Active Transport (cycling and walking) on community health and wellbeing were mentioned but not in relation to vehicular transport. There was no mention of EVs.

Clearly, the SA HiAP principles were overlooked by the Transport Department whose consideration of health should be second only to the health department itself. Today, our health services are near collapse and it is wishful thinking that they can improve in an increasingly complex, stressed society with more anxiety, depression, dementia and infectious diseases.

Services need to be helped by fewer consultations and admissions to hospital from the legion of pollution-related diseases. The urgent introduction of EVs can offer some relief.

In turn, this may well demonstrate cost savings by transitioning to EVs by the use of full cost-benefit analysis which is rarely done between “silos”.

It also provides an opportunity for the Federal Government to embark on a preventative health program promoting the EV transition not only by saving user costs but by education and advertising on the health benefits for all.

Currently, a national enquiry into EVs is asking for submissions. The consultation paper is somewhat narrow in its ambitions as might be expected from a government “silo”. Hopefully, the many submissions as recommended by David Ritter will explain the wide interlocking needs of society.

There is one further consideration for the Federal Government.

The need to consider the introduction of EVs as the catalyst for entirely new thinking on planning roads, suburbs, free public transport and the creation of green cities, with Australia lagging behind many other developed nations. Such planning considerations have huge health implications.

We have addressed the issue in our submission to the SA Parliament and explained how this is a unique opportunity to plan healthy lifestyles instead of prioritising a few minutes saved on a journey through town.

Please let us have a vision for the EV transition to be the catalyst for a green city concept with requirements for green space within developments with roads and transport separated as far as practical. Green space in a community, for children to play, dogs to be walked and the old to sit, free of the noise, pollution and physical dangers of transport confers immense lifetime health benefits.

Dr David Shearman AM is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Adelaide University and the co-founder of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

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