As the federal government has sought ways to thwart climate change and reduce pollution, one longstanding and popular policy tool has been the subsidization of electric vehicle purchases.

Though they remain separate from the $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure agreement the White House announced last week, incentives for EV buyers indeed could be part of future legislation.

But new research suggests there may be a better way to reach pollution-reduction targets, at least in the short term. A paper published in June in the journal Environmental Research Letters found that subsidizing hybrid vehicles instead of electrics could result in faster emissions reductions.

The paper’s authors acknowledged that EVs are cleaner than their hybrid and internal combustion counterparts. But they wrote that factors such as consumer habits, charger accessibility and upfront EV costs all combine to make hybrids a better candidate to reach the road in wider numbers today, which would drive down emissions.

“The goal of the federal government shouldn’t be to get you to buy an electric car,” Ashley Nunes, a research scientist at MIT and Harvard who co-authored the paper, told Automotive News. “It’s to reduce emissions. So the question becomes, how do you best do that?”

He argues it’s by shifting taxpayer dollars toward hybrids. Early adopters would likely purchase EVs even without a financial incentive, Nunes and co-authors Laurena Huh and John Heywood wrote. But most car buyers still favor internal combustion engines. Of those buyers, the majority list hybrids as their second preference.

Currently, many new models of both plug-in hybrids and EVs are eligible for federal income tax credits of up to $7,500, while a variety of state and local tax programs offer further incentives. Nunes says more drivers could be swayed toward hybrids with a much smaller incentive.

“Hybrid sales far outpace electric vehicle sales even without any federal subsidy,” he said. “And the evidence suggests you’d see a dramatic increase in hybrid sales as a result of some of these EV subsidies being directed toward hybrids.”

As important as preference, Nunes says, the upfront cost penalties associated with EVs remain significant. The researchers wrote that EVs cost 40 percent more than comparable internal combustion counterparts and, factoring in power grid operation, account for 37 percent less greenhouse gas emissions.

Hybrids, by comparison, cost 12 percent more than their equivalent internal combustion brethren and still cut greenhouse gas emissions, by 27 percent.

“The magnitude of EV cost penalties relative to their … emission benefits makes HEVs — we argue — a more promising near-term emissions reduction pathway,” the researchers wrote in the paper.

Not everyone agrees. Dave Cooke, senior vehicles analyst in the Clean Transportation Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says the paper takes a snapshot glance at current conditions.

It fails to account for ongoing improvements in powerplant emissions or the probability that new vehicles today will be on the road for decades, he says.

“There is no such thing as ‘near-term’ reductions because the vehicle fleet turns over so slowly,” Cooke said. “So when you are talking about subsidizing a vehicle purchase, you are considering vehicle emissions over the lifetime of that vehicle.”

The power plants that provide energy for EVs are getting cleaner. Emissions rates from power plants fell 11 percent between 2016 and 2019, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. The plants’ ongoing improvement in emissions reductions gives EVs an advantage: They’ll continue to get cleaner over time.

But that only matters, Nunes argues, if greater numbers of drivers purchase them. In addition to high prices, he says, charger accessibility remains a significant barrier for low- and middle-income residents who do not own their own homes as well as those who live in multifamily dwellings.

That’s why installing public charging equipment remains what Cooke calls “the single most important thing” in reinforcing a shift toward EVs.

It’s a step addressed in the federal infrastructure legislation, which is being considered at a time when the latest EPA figures show transportation accounts for 29 percent of the country’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.

“When it comes to market transition, we’re seeing it shift from the wealthier early adopters to more mainstream adopters,” he said. “We should be looking to continue that push, and this is a way to do that.”

Nunes remains skeptical that increased availability of public chargers will encourage more people to buy EVs.

Hybrids remove the charging challenge for those potential customers. Further, he says, lower-income drivers own the oldest cars — the same ones who are likely heavy polluters. Offering incentives on hybrids makes it more affordable for them to go green.

“Who can afford to charge at home? Not necessarily the middle class,” he said. “I’m not saying that electric vehicles are bad. I’m just saying the evidence suggests they are not the wisest use of the public purse when it comes to reducing emissions.”

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