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As Electric Cars Drop in Price, They Could Become Vehicles of Racial Equity

nissan leaf charging in a snowy parking lot
As electric vehicles become more affordable, they may help to reduce air pollution in communities historically burdened by environmental injustice. Photo: Jakob Härter

Electric vehicles have been quietly fighting for racial equity in middle class communities across America and they are now going mainstream thanks to policy, technology and private sector momentum. In recent years, EVs have become more affordable, their manufacturing has ramped up, and the certified pre-owned EV market has expanded. While electric vehicles still only make up two percent of the new car market, they are rapidly growing and their net effect has been, and will continue to be, cleaner air and a diminished reliance on fossil fuels. The biggest impact will be in middle class communities of people of color, which have historically been burdened by environmental injustice and can now afford to have a stake in the EV market.

Years ago, the number one polluter in America was power plants but today, it’s transportation. In response to this threat, the Biden administration is bringing back the Obama-era policies for fuel efficiency and making them more rigorous. These types of stringent regulations, combined with incentives for zero-emission vehicles (like the Growing Renewable Energy and Efficiency Now Act that was introduced in Congress in February), will continue to advance environmental justice. The most progress will occur in communities which start their journey to clean air from a position of disadvantage.

Communities of color often experience a high rate of asthma and upper respiratory diseases because of the environmental burdens inflicted upon them. According to Green Latinos, half of all Latinos in America live in counties where the air does not meet public health standards, and the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America shows that Black people are nearly three times more likely to die from asthma than white people.

In New York, commuter towns like Mount Vernon and Wyandanch (which are predominantly made up of people of color), experience a disproportionate amount of air pollution when compared to other towns in their respective counties. A recent Harvard University study concluded that even slight increases of particulate matter in the air have devastating effects on the people living in those communities. Removing the number one source of air pollution — motor vehicles — would begin to address these racial disparities. With the cost of tailpipe-less electric vehicles becoming competitive with internal combustion vehicles, commuters in Mount Vernon and Wyandanch, NY (whose median household incomes hover around $60k) have the means to participate in the EV market and thereby contribute to improving their air quality — and there are many towns like these all across the country. Widespread adoption of electric vehicles has the power to make the air quality, and therefore its public health concerns, equal in historically unequal communities.

Long perceived as luxury toys for the rich, the manufacturing of EVs has broadened to a complete fleet including medium- and heavy-duty vehicles. As the maximum range of EVs has increased, their stigma has lifted and fossil fuel consumption has dropped. In tandem, programs like New York State’s Make Ready program have stimulated the adoption of EVs. The $700 million investment set the foundation for clean transportation expansion statewide in an effort to reach the state’s goal of a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2030. According to the N.C. Clean Energy Technology Center, there are now 43 states with similar programs or incentives in place for scaling up charging capabilities.

Commuters in New York can take advantage of a $2,000 of New York State tax credit and a federal tax credit up to $7,500 with a new EV.  An additional $2,500 tax credit, based on income, brings a new Mini Cooper SE under $19k, with the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Bolt around $20k (before considering trade-in values for a combustion engine). Moreover, a newly founded used and certified pre-owned EV market is making the adoption of electric vehicles even more affordable.

In January, General Motors announced that its entire fleet will be all-electric by 2035. The year closely aligns with President Biden’s goal to have 500,000 chargers installed country-wide as a part of his Clean Energy Revolution, which specifically outlines the importance of environmental justice in communities of color. There will likely be even more chargers by then, thanks to the private sector. Shell and BP have both purchased EV charger makers, clearly indicating that the future of gas stations will include charging stations. As the infrastructure continues to expand, the ubiquity of charging stations will further reduce anxieties surrounding charging and thereby encourage the purchase of EVs.

Ultimately, the adoption of electric vehicles is making the air cleaner for everyone and in doing so, it may also be promoting a more equal society.

Daryush Nourbaha is a graduate of Columbia University’s M.S. in Sustainability Science program and a senior planning analyst at Con Edison. The company is investing in electric vehicles in Mount Vernon as well as other communities.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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