Electric school buses can deliver significant health and climate benefits and cost savings

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Replacing diesel school buses with electric school buses could deliver up to $247,600 in climate and health benefits per individual bus, according to a new study from researchers at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. The researchers found that these benefits – including reduced greenhouse gas emissions and lower death rates among adults and asthma among children – and associated savings are strongest in large cities and among the fleet of old buses (2005 and before).

The research ‘Adopting electric school buses in the United States: health and climate benefits’ was published in the American journal American School of Education Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on May 20, 2024.

While the health and climate benefits of switching from diesel vehicles to electric vehicles are well established, this is the first study to specifically quantify how electric school buses can improve the health of people and the planet.

“Research on air pollution and climate change should strive to quantify health benefits,” said senior author Kari Nadeau, John Rock professor of climate and population studies and chair of the Department of Environmental Health.

“Our findings can inform policymakers that greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution are reduced by implementing solutions such as the use of electric vehicles. Our data provides strong evidence that accelerating the ongoing transition to electric school buses will benefit individual, public and planetary health.”

There are approximately half a million school buses in use in the US and a substantial portion of them are older, highly polluting diesel buses. Switching to electric buses is a difficult decision for local, state and federal officials because they are expensive and the health benefits are not well known.

To quantify how diesel and electric school buses affect the climate, the researchers compared the amounts of carbon dioxide emitted from the tailpipes of diesel school buses and from the electricity generation and battery production of electric school buses. To assess the health impacts of the buses, the researchers compared how their respective emissions contribute to particulate matter air pollution2.5), which is associated with adult mortality and the onset of asthma in children.

The study found that replacing the average diesel school bus in the U.S. fleet with an electric bus in 2017 yielded a total of $84,200 in benefits per individual bus. Each electric school bus emits 181 tons less carbon dioxide than its diesel counterpart, amounting to $40,400 in climate benefits. Meanwhile, each electric school bus was associated with $43,800 in health savings, thanks to less air pollution and lower rates of death and childhood asthma.

The study also found that the health benefits of electric school buses vary depending on the location and age of the diesel bus being replaced. Large urban areas – defined as areas with more than a million residents – derive the most significant health benefits from electrifying school buses, given the greater number of people whose air quality is improved.

The researchers calculated that replacing a 2005 diesel school bus with an electric bus in a major city would provide $207,200 in health benefits per bus.

“In a dense urban environment where old diesel buses still make up the majority of school bus fleets, the savings from electrifying these buses outweigh the cost of replacement,” Nadeau said.

“Not to mention how the tangible benefits of electric school buses can improve lives – especially for racial minorities and people living in low-income communities that are disproportionately affected by the daily health risks of air pollution.”

Nadeau and her co-authors noted that the study did not answer one important question: How do electric school buses affect children’s exposure to cabin air pollution while riding the bus? Additional research on this topic could further inform policy decisions.

Ernani Choma, research associate in the Department of Environmental Health, and Lisa Robinson, senior research scientist and deputy director of the Center for Health Decision Science, were co-authors.

More information:
Choma, Ernani F. et al., Adopting Electric School Buses in the United States: Health and Climate Benefits, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2024). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2320338121.

Magazine information:
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences