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Diesel: Emissions, Health, and Climate Impacts

Sameer Akbar's picture
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Trucks idling in traffic in Ghana. Jonathan Ernst/World Bank

Playing charades with my nine-year-old over the weekend, I was surprised when he gave black smoke as a clue for diesel. When I was his age, I probably would have given bus or truck as a clue.

The word diesel derives from the inventor Rudolph Diesel, who developed a heavy-duty engine in Germany in the late 1800s. Diesel fuel is any fuel used in diesel engines. The combustion of diesel fuel provides the power to move heavy-duty vehicles, such as buses and trucks. It also results in emissions of fine particles, often in the form of black smoke, along with a number of other chemical compounds.

In 2012, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the emissions from diesel combustion to be carcinogenic. Last month, the WHO released data showing that more than 7 million deaths are caused by indoor and outdoor air pollution. The black smoke from diesel engines is a part of outdoor air pollution contributed by buses and trucks, as my son would tell me after we finished our game.

What he does not know as yet is that a study by a team of international scientists in 2013 noted that diesel smoke consists primarily of black carbon, which has a strong global warming impact on the climate; nearly 3,300 time more than that of carbon dioxide over a 20-year time period.

The one simple and clear message from the triangulation of current scientific evidence is that reducing diesel emissions provides health and climate benefits.

When Breathing Kills

Sameer Akbar's picture

 Curt Carnemark/World Bank

A good friend of mine recently returned from her mother’s funeral in Germany. She had died of lung cancer after spending the last eight years of her life in a slum in New Delhi where she taught orphaned children.

I can’t help but wonder if breathing the dirty indoor and outdoor pollution in New Delhi contributed to her cancer. My friend has the same question.

In new estimates released March 25, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that in 2012, about 7 million people died - one in eight of total global deaths – as a result of air pollution. Indoor air pollution was linked to 4.3 million deaths in households that cook over coal, wood and biomass stoves. Outdoor air pollution was linked to 3.7 million deaths from urban and rural sources worldwide. (As many people are exposed to both indoor and outdoor air pollution, mortality attributed to the two sources cannot simply be added together.)

South and East Asia had the largest number of deaths linked to indoor air pollution.

The WHO finding more than doubles previous estimates and confirms that air pollution is now the world’s single largest environmental health risk. In particular, the new data reveal a stronger link between both indoor and outdoor air pollution exposure and cardiovascular diseases, such as strokes and ischemic heart disease, as well as between air pollution and cancer. In the case of both indoor and outdoor air pollution related deaths, 6 percent were attributed to cancer.

Thinking that my friend’s mother perished as result of pollution may not be so far-fetched.

I want to ride my bicycle

Flore de Préneuf's picture


"Bicycle bicycle bicycle
I want to ride my bicycle bicycle bicycle
I want to ride my bicycle
I want to ride my bike
I want to ride my bicycle
I want to ride it where I like
..."

Earlier today, I was stuck in a herd of slow-moving, smoke-belching traffic (also known as the Beltway in Washington D.C.), when I heard an uplifting feature about electric bikes on the radio. Electric bikes are apparently all the rage at this year’s ongoing bike show in Taipei.

The WDR 2010 described in its chapter on innovation how the electric bike market took off in China over the last 10 years as a result of “technological improvements, faster urbanization, higher gasoline prices, and increases in purchasing power.” Not surprising, in the Kingdom of the Bicycle. But will e-bikes sway car addicts elsewhere?

On today’s “Science Friday” radio show, callers shared their enthusiasm for Do-It-Yourself mitigation. There are now dozens of kits out there to help retrofit ordinary bicycles -- so you can chug up a hill without a sweat. A brother and sister team, 59 and 61, are setting off on Earth Day on an electric bike tour of the United States to show that older people are never too old to pedal.