More electric vehicles mean less smog

"Modern urban agglomerations make it possible to exploit the potential of electromobility to a particularly large extent. It is no coincidence that smart city concepts are based, among other things, on adapting the existing infrastructure to electric transport. One of the greatest benefits of electric cars is their zero-emission nature, which can significantly contribute to the reduction of smog and improve the quality of life of residents," Agata Śmieja, president of the Clean Air Foundation and originator of the Togetair Climate Summit, has stressed. 

Minimizing emissions within populated areas is one of the main advantages of electric vehicles. The operating characteristics of electric motors (in particular the fact that they do not draw power when idle) are also particularly beneficial in the urban traffic scenario. These motors allow mechanical energy (motion) to be converted back into electrical energy and used for braking, resulting in much less wear and tear on the brake pads compared to combustion cars. They also allow precise control over the power generated, eliminating the gearboxes and hydraulic clutches used in conventional vehicles (which are expensive and potentially failing vehicle parts).

The key, however, is the growing role of zero-emission electric vehicles in improving air quality in Poland and Europe as a whole - a major concern for residents of urban areas. Smog causes deterioration of people's health and well-being (e.g., focusing problems) and increases the risk of diseases, both respiratory (e.g., asthma) and cardiovascular (e.g., hypertension). And road transport is the third most important source of particulate matter emissions in Poland (after so-called low emissions and industrial combustion processes). According to 2019 data, it is responsible for 10% of PM2.5 emissions and 8% of PM10 emissions. For cities, the share of transportation and the amount of particulate matter emissions that contribute to smog are even higher.

Smog also negatively affects the economy of individual countries. The European Commission estimates that it burdens the EU economy with €4 billion a year in health care costs and with €16 billion in lost work time. In Poland, similar calculations have been carried out by the Supreme Auditing Chamber, which in 2018 estimated the external costs of poor air quality (PM2.5 concentrations) on the territory of the five audited provinces at about PLN 12.6 billion per year.

An opportunity for improvement is the accelerating green revolution in transport, bringing about positive changes in the automotive industry and in the organization of transport in cities. Electrification of transport, including increasing the number of electric cars, is a simple and safe way to reduce emissions. And that means less smog that is so harmful. The scale of the challenge is shown by the numbers and data on the cars on our roads. EU countries have an average of 512 cars per thousand inhabitants. The most harmful substances into the atmosphere are emitted by diesel vehicles that do not have particulate filters. They are still in wide use throughout Central and Eastern Europe, including Poland. At the same time, more than one third of the cars in our country are old and polluting - according to PZPM data, as many as 56.3% of vehicles (imported between January and April 2020) were older than 10 years.  In Western Europe, diesel engines are already being abandoned, precisely for ecological reasons; in Poland, in the above-mentioned study, they accounted for 44% of imports. Meanwhile, cars that are 20 years and older can hardly be seen on Czech roads and in Slovakia the share of such vehicles is only 5%.

- In Poland, therefore, there is much to be done in this area, both in terms of user education and various forms of state support for the development of low- and zero-emission forms of transport - says Agata Śmieja.

- Although the number of electrically-powered cars is still marginal (25 thousand, half of which are plug-in hybrids), their number in the first five months of this year, according to the Electromobility Counter maintained by the Polish Alternative Fuels Association, went up by 149% compared to the same period of 2020. If acceleration of the development of infrastructure becomes possible, which refers primarily to the number, types and availability of charging stations in different regions of the country, the number of buyers of zero-emission vehicles will also grow much faster - Śmieja points out.

A new impulse for accelerating the development of electromobility will certainly come from the EU's "Fit for 55" legislative package. Its main goal is to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union by at least 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. One of the most important planned measures to get closer to this goal is to restrict the registration of new internal combustion vehicles until they are completely removed from circulation in 2035. And under the European Green Deal, electric vehicle users in the EU are expected to gain access to 1 million charging points in 2025 and 3 million in 2030.

Urban mobility is undergoing a major change, too, with single track vehicles, among other things, gaining traction as means of transport which can also be powered by electricity (preferably from green sources).  The electric power assistance makes it possible for even the less physically fit users to negotiate considerable hills as well as cover longer distances. An interesting solution in the micro mobility market is the use of cargo bicycles, including those with electric propulsion. They are already in use with courier companies as a solution to the problem of last mile logistics, i.e. delivery to the recipient's door. At the same time, companies in this and other sectors plan to modernize their delivery vehicle fleets with a view to gradually increasing the share of zero-emission vehicles. Businesses, like the mayors of many Polish cities and towns, are becoming increasingly involved in reducing air pollution. Help in the replacement of the fleet may come from the newly launched NFOŚiGW's "My EV" priority programme, in which both individual users and companies can apply for funding. For individuals, the subsidy will be PLN 18,750, and for those with a Large Family Card: PLN 27,000. Other program beneficiaries may expect subsidies at the level depending on the vehicle category and average annual mileage. Moreover, they can apply for funding for more than one vehicle. Applicants who are not natural persons will be able to obtain co-financing of up to 27,000 PLN for M1 category vehicles with the declared average annual mileage of min. 15,000 km and 4,000 PLN worth in support for L category vehicles. However, the subsidy for the purchase of N1 category vehicles will be up to PLN 70,000. The condition will be to declare an average annual mileage of more than 20,000 km. Grants will cover both the purchase and lease of vehicles.

The fight against smog is therefore being waged on many fronts and in many different ways. However, this is not only the domain of administration, local governments or companies operating in our environment. Subsidies for electric vehicles and facilitations for their users will certainly have a positive impact on the pace and scale of changes in transport, but the actual extent of those changes, and thus whether we will enjoy better health by breathing better quality air, is determined by each of us. Changing habits, such as choosing zero-emission modes of transport or sharing vehicles more often, which leads to fewer combustion cars on the road, is a concrete action that each of us can and should take.

A major challenge - and an argument often raised by opponents of electric cars - is that Poland is dominated by coal and lignite-fired power plants, while renewable energy sources (RES) have a negligible share in the energy mix. While the use of electric vehicles per se does not produce emissions, charging them can indirectly contribute to emissions such as carbon dioxide. Electricity for the existing and planned charging stations, however, will largely come from zero-emission sources. A fresh example from our market is the green energy supply agreement signed by GreenWay, Poland's largest charging station operator, with Polenergia Sprzedaż. The Energy 2051 zero-carbon standard will enter in effect across the European Union, as set out in the European Green Deal, in three decades' time, but every example of implementing such solutions today - to the benefit of clean air and all of us - is welcome.

This material was published thanks to a grant from the National Fund for Environmental Protection and Water Management.
The Clean Air Foundation is solely responsible for its content.