18th June 2020

Post-COVID19: Making a Case for Electric Vehicles

Levels of NO2 around the world, before & after travel restrictions and lockdowns  (Source: EEA)

The Pandemic & Its Impact

In early December 2019, the first official case for a novel infectious disease, identified as SARS-Cov-2 or COVID-19, originated in Wuhan, China; which has now been rapidly transmitted and turned into a global pandemic.

Due to the relatively high reproductive number (R0) of COVID-19 and with flu- & cold-like symptoms, countries all over the world have issued strict lockdowns and imposed travel restrictions to slow down the infection and “flatten the curve” – decisions taken were due to the contagiousness and lack of medical information about COVID-19 and the absence of a vaccine. Due to the travel restrictions and lockdowns, it has had dramatic effects on social as well as economic fronts, with oil prices at a 21-year low!

(To check the current status of travel restrictions globally, check out the interactive map created by the International Air Transport Association)

travel restrictions covid-19

More than 100 countries had imposed travel restrictions due to coronavirus as on April 24, 2020  (Source:BBC)

On the brighter side, COVID-19 has had a positive impact on our natural environment. The recent data released by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and ESA (European Space Agency) indicates the pollution levels have dramatically reduced in a few epicenters such as Wuhan, Italy, Spain and USA, etc.! Due to reduced mobility by an average ~70%, these (refer Google Mobility Report) geographies have managed to temporarily reduce the emission levels by 30%.

India

Less than six months ago, Delhi was covered in smog with very low visibility resulting in the cancellation of flights. Indian authorities said the air quality in Delhi moved to the ‘Hazardous’ category (AQI reaching the 999-mark). Due to life-threatening levels of pollution, schools and colleges were shut, flights were diverted, and people were asked to wear masks, avoid polluted areas, and keep the doors and windows closed at all times.

Comparison of  NO2 levels in South Asia during March 25 to April 25 for average of  2017 to 2019 & 2020 respectively  (Source:NASA)

As air pollution plummeted to levels unseen in a lifetime, people were taken by surprise and shared pictures of spotless skies and Himalayan peaks from cities where the view had been hazy for decades due to the strict lockdown imposed in the country.

Comparison of  Delhi’s pollution before & after the lockdown was imposed  (Source: Insider)

PM 2.5 levels across Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru have dropped by a phenomenal 45-88 per cent during the pandemic-induced lockdown period. [Source]

In Pune, NOx pollution has reduced by 43%; in Mumbai by 38% and in Ahmedabad by 50%. [Source]

Europe

Lockdowns due to COVID-19 throughout Europe have drastically reduced the levels of nitrogen and carbon emissions by almost half, resulting in 11,000 fewer deaths from air pollution as compared to its previous yearly average.

Comparison of  Venice’s pollution & quality of the canal water before & after the lockdown was imposed  (Source: Insider)

The measures to combat the coronavirus have led to an approximately 40% reduction in average level of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution and 10% reduction in average level of particulate matter pollution over the past 30 days on average for Europe.

There is a clear difference in the visibility in Venice as strict lockdown guidelines were issues to limit the spread of the pandemic. The impact in Venice was so much that its famously polluted canals cleared up and the water become more habitable, resulting in the return of swans!

As you can see from the graph above, Portugal has seen the highest impact, 58% in NO2 levels and 55% in PM10 levels; followed by Norway & Spain with 48%;51% in NO2 & 28%;19% in PM10 reduction respectively. [Source]

United States

Comparison of  NO2 levels in Southwestern region of the US during March 25 to April 25 for average of  2017 to 2019 & 2020 respectively  (Source:NASA)

During March 2015 to 2019 and March 2020 nitrous oxide (NOX) emissions have reduced by up to 30% due to the lockdowns and travel restrictions in the northeastern part of the United States.

Comparison of  Los Angeles’ pollution before & after the lockdown was imposed  (Source: Insider)

But now, countries have started opening up and daily activities are gradually coming back to normal, it means that the pollution levels will quickly rise and the air will be a bit more difficult to breathe. So, how can we still go on with our normal lives but reduce the emissions that affect human health?

Electric Mobility Vs Conventional Mobility

Increasing Levels of Emissions

Climate change is at an alarming level as increased emissions from burning fossil fuels for electricity generation and transportation have been increasing yearly. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide in 2016 had crossed 400 ppm; a level of concentration that is deemed, by scientists, to be catastrophic for the environment that we live in. Adding to that, global emissions continue to grow and have close to doubled in the past 50 years to a staggering 43 gigatons last year!

Since the imposition of travel restrictions followed by lockdowns due to COVID-19, we have seen a dramatic improvement in air quality across the planet. The projections for CO2 emissions show a drop of more than 4% in 2020, as compared to pre-COVlD levels, according to many researchers.

These improvements in air quality and reductions in CO2 are a result of a global economic & social activity disruption and not due to systemic changes – which raises concerns about sustainability. However, as mentioned above, the positive impacts of reduced pollution in a very short period of time have proved that reducing emissions by conventional mobility (Internal Combustion Engines or ICE) can help with sustaining carbon and nitrous oxide (NOX) emissions.

Making a Case for Electric Vehicles

electric vehicles

After enjoying its success in the early 20th century, electric vehicles began to lose their position in the automobile market due to improved road infrastructure in the 1920s, which required long-range vehicles, and unfortunately, EVs at the time lacked that.

Later there were worldwide discoveries of large petroleum reserves that made gasoline affordable and widely available, sidelining electric vehicles.

Trivia: Electric vehicles were limited to urban use by their slow speed (no more than 24–32 km/h or 15–20 mph) and low range (50–65 km or 30–40 miles), and gasoline cars were able to travel farther and faster than equivalent electrics. [Source]

Cut to modern-day, across its life cycle, a typical electric vehicle produces fewer emissions as compared to its petrol and diesel counterparts. Emissions are higher during the production phase of the EVs, but these are more than offset by lower emissions while using them over time.

According to the reports by the European Environmental Agency (EEA), an electric vehicle can reduce carbon emissions anywhere between 17% to 30% – it can be a lot more if we successfully move to environmentally cleaner car manufacturing techniques.

Comparison of Electric Vehicles, Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles, &  Gasoline-only Vehicles (Source: UCS)

However, as the carbon intensity of the energy mix is projected to decrease, the life-cycle emissions of a standard electric vehicle can be cut by at least 73% by 2050! This would only happen if production techniques for EVs became environment-friendly.

Apart from breathing problems, and the mortality rate of air pollution; noise pollution is the next biggest factor adversely impacting human life. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), noise is second only to air pollution for the impact it has on human health. 

Noise pollution is a major cause, not only leading to hearing impairment, but also to heart disease, learning problems in children, and sleep irregularities. The usage of electric vehicles will have a significant drop in noise pollution (applicable only to countries where honking is an offense) and in turn, result in improved physical and mental health.

Conclusion

As you’re reading this, the result of the comparison (environmental impact) can be less in favor of electric vehicles when looking at the present-day footprint, it is mostly due to the extraction and the processing of critical raw materials that are needed to manufacture these vehicles, their components, and batteries. However, the impact could be minimized through a much-needed circular economy approach that facilitates reuse and recycling — especially of batteries.

To sustain cleaner air, like we have seen and felt during the lockdowns; now is the time to start the rapid adoption of electric vehicles around the globe especially in India, as it prepares to lay down the BS6 guidelines effective from 1st October 2020 (postponed due to COVID-19) which have been issued by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, amending the Motor Vehicles (High-Security Registration Plates) Order, 2018.

At ION, we have an extraordinary opportunity to take back learnings from this disruption and accelerate India, and the Earth’s transition to an all-electric and a zero-emissions planet!

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