With less traffic due to pandemic shutdowns, the air in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto and other urban centres is clearer — and much healthier. In the longer-term, replacing normal vehicle volumes with EVs would have the same life-saving effect
If you’re spending all your time isolating indoors, you might not have noticed, but Canada’s cities are currently experiencing a dramatic decrease in pollution and fossil fuel emissions.
The big difference maker: fewer cars and trucks on the roads.
The air-clearing impact of reduced emissions — not just carbon dioxide (CO2), which warms the planet, but nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a major factor in smog and other harmful particulate air pollution — is revealed in the following maps from satellite data analytics provider Descartes Labs.
The images compare the average levels of atmospheric NO2, a pollutant created from burning fossil fuels such as gasoline, in the areas surrounding Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary in recent weeks with those detected during the same time frame last year. And the differences are stark.
Edmonton and Calgary
Increased health risks
Given that NO2 exposure has been directly linked to a number of serious health risks, the above images put the level of vehicle pollutants that Canadians are regularly exposed to, and the resulting health risks, into striking perspective.
“Air pollution produces approximately 14,000 early deaths each year in Canada,” Robin Edger, executive director and CEO of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, told Electric Autonomy.
“Traffic-related air pollution, including NO2, increases the risk of heart disease, strokes, lung cancer and respiratory disease, as well as aggravating existing heart and lung conditions.”
Newly unveiled research from the University of Toronto has also observed a significant drop in pollution levels in downtown Toronto. Despite the trend we are now seeing, however, current improvements in air quality are unlikely to last long past the COVID-19 crisis without permanent changes to the way Canadians get around.
“The reduction in air pollution is only temporary… and has come from changes that are not sustainable and are as a result of a pandemic that has caused enormous human suffering,” says Edger.
“In order to reduce air pollution in a more lasting way we need to move from fossil fuel vehicles to electric vehicles, clean public transportation, and active transportation like walking and biking.”
Cleaner air possible
As Edger points out, it is entirely possible to drastically reduce vehicle pollution without requiring anything near our pandemic level of lifestyle transformation.
Battery-electric and other zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) operate without burning gasoline, and as such do not produce NO2 and other pollutants. Despite that fact, they still represent only a fraction of the vehicles on Canada’s roads; as of last September, ZEVs made up only 3.5 per cent of new vehicle sales in Canada.
Should EVs become the predominant transportation choice of Canadians, the level of air quality we are currently seeing could quickly become a permanent reality. If all vehicles in Canada were to become electric, our level of air quality could increase even from the levels we are currently seeing.
That would mean reduced incidences of life-threatening disease not only for drivers and their families, but for all those living in urban areas who otherwise would be breathing less-than-quality air.
Policy against pollution
Canada has set ambitious targets for vehicle electrification, with a goal of having 30 per cent of new light duty vehicle sales be zero-emission by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2040. Some have forecasted, however, that those targets won’t be met without decisive policy action.
“The most effective, low-cost, and transformative public policy for Canada to improve our air quality is to increase electric vehicle sales by adopting a mandate similar to… what Quebec, British Columbia, California, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and other U.S. states already have — requiring automakers to sell a certain percentage of zero-emission vehicles with a credit trading system to improve overall market efficiency,” says Edger.
“Canada also needs a massive investment in public transit with zero-emission technologies, leading to fully decarbonized public transit.”
Just as the massive strain which COVID-19 is placing upon Canada will eventually pass, vehicle pollution is sure to increase once again, and rates of associated disease will remain high. A future driven by zero-emission vehicles, however, has the potential to make cleaner air a permanent reality and should therefore be a priority for policymakers as Canada begins to emerge from this crisis, Edger argues.