How much do cars actually pollute the environment?

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World Car Free Day was celebrated on 22 September to encourage people around the globe to use mass forms of transport, cycle, walk and to build communities that make it possible to reduce commuting journeys. We look at some of the real environmental impacts of cars and how our daily commute can really affect the world.

The first petrol-powered automobile was invented in 1886 by Karl Friedrich Benz and it ushered in the age of the internal combustion engine and the car. Transport was never the same again. People were now able to get from wherever they were to wherever they wanted to go at the push of an accelerator pedal. A car transitioned from being a rich boy’s toy at the beginning of the 20th century to becoming a necessity for suburb dwellers to commute to work by the end of that same century.

However, the environmental impact of car travel has become increasingly apparent and nowadays everybody knows that it’s more environmentally-friendly to take the bus, the train, walk or cycle, but as a society we have yet to give up our cars. Cars give us freedom of movement as well as making a statement about who we are and our status, but what is the actual cost to the world of owning and using one?

Energy intensive before even reaching the road

The car manufacturing process is energy intensive and automotive production has a huge carbon footprint before cars have even been driven on the roads. According to some calculations manufacturing a car creates as much carbon pollution as driving it. The ores used to create the metal for the body and engine, the chemicals involved in creating the plastics, paints, rubber, glass and vast numbers of other manufactured components are energy intensive to make and assemble. The C02 emissions involved in manufacturing a small car (such as a Citroen C1) are calculated at around 6 tonnes and a large car (such as a Land Rover Discovery) at 35 tonnes.

Impact of driving a car on clean air

The most obvious impact of driving a car is the use of fossil fuels and the air pollution they cause, particularly diesel. Burning fossil fuels leads to further carbon emissions in the form of C02, but also releases other gases and particles into the atmosphere. These include ground-level ozone (O3), which is a key cause of chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma, and its precursors nitrogen oxide, methane and carbon monoxide.

According to the World Health Organisation, air pollution is the cause of 3.7 million premature deaths per year and “road transport is estimated to be responsible for up to 30% of particulate emissions (PM) in European cities and up to 50% of PM emissions in OECD countries.”

Environmental cost of oil and fuel

Beyond how burning fuel in a car’s engine affects the environment, it’s also important to remember the environmental effects of the fuel industry itself. Shipping fuels also expend a lot of energy so simply carrying oil and fuel from its source to where it is consumed is energy intensive. Alongside this, oils spills from tankers or platforms have a devastating effect on marine and coastal environments and can take decades to recover.

Scrapping your car also pollutes the environment

After all this negative news you may think that completely giving up your car is the best option, but it may actually be worth considering if you can still get some use out of it. Once a car is taken off the road it can go for scrap, but while around 75% of the materials in new cars can now be recycled, many still contain plastics, toxic battery acid and other products that are not biodegradable and therefore remain in the environment. Keeping an older, less polluting car on the road and using it only for journeys that are absolutely necessary, may be better than buying a new car (either powered by electricity, fossil fuels or both). Within the city, and least polluting of all, you can also choose to ride a bike – Lisbon has at least 90 kilometres of cycle paths – or catch the subway or bus. Bike and car sharing systems are also available in multiple cities around the world.

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