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Transport

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.

Transforming Transportation in Our Polluted, Congested Cities

Karin Rives's picture

 Kim Eun Yeul / World Bank

Cities are the world’s engines of economic growth, but they also account for 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and many metropolitan areas struggle with traffic congestion, lost productivity, public health problems and traffic deaths due to inadequate public transportation.

How can we make our cities livable, inclusive, prosperous and green?

One Investment that Can Make Unhealthy Cities Livable and Fight Climate Change: Sustainable Transportation

Rachel Kyte's picture

 

Guangzhou's bus rapid transport system cut traffic and travel time. Benjamin Arki/World BankThe more the world urbanizes – and we’re forecast to be 70 percent urban-dwellers by 2050 – the more critical clean, efficient, safe transportation becomes. Access to better jobs, schools, and clinics gives the poor a ladder out of poverty and towards greater prosperity.
 
But transport as we know it today, with roads clogged with cars and trucks and fumes, is also a threat. We have inefficient supply chains, inefficient fuels, and a growing car culture, with all the congestion, lost productivity, and deadly crashes that brings. Urban air pollution exacerbated by vehicle traffic is blamed for an estimated 3 million deaths a year, according to the Global Burden of Disease report, and the black carbon it contains is contributing to climate change. The transport sector contributes 20 percent of all energy-related CO2 emissions, with emissions growing at about 1.7 percent a year since 2000, contributing to the growing threats posed by climate change
 
To sum it up, much of today’s transport is unhealthy for people and planet.

Can Transport Continue to Drive Development in the Face of Carbon and Resource Constraints?

Andreas Kopp's picture

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Transport drives development: It leads agricultural producers out of subsistence by linking them to markets, enables regions and nations to become more competitive, and makes cities more productive.  But transport is also a big polluter, contributing 20 percent of global energy-related CO2 emissions.  These emissions have grown by 1.7 percent annually since 2000, with 60 percent of the increase in non-OECD countries where economic growth has been accompanied by a surge in demand for individual motor vehicles.

Are attempts to change this trend bad for development? Recent historical experience tells us otherwise. Countries with the lowest emissions per passenger-km are the ‘development miracles’ of recent decades: Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong are all champions in transport fuel-efficiency.

So what would a low-emission future look like? Some see rapid improvements in engine technology as the path to de-carbonization. (Source: IEA) The IPCC, however, finds that technical breakthroughs such as mass affordability of fuel cell cars are unlikely to arrive soon. If so, emission reductions will have to be achieved by a modal change, emphasizing mass transit, railways, and inland water transport rather than individual motorization and aviation.

US vehicle emission standards move

Andreas Kopp's picture

"These historic new standards set ambitious, but achievable, fuel economy requirements for the automotive industry that will also encourage new and emerging technologies. We will be helping American motorists save money at the pump, while putting less pollution in the air." This is how Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced the new national standards for passenger cars and light trucks today.

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.