Diesel cars “kill 5,000 people a year” in Europe — and the UK is one of the worst offenders

A worrying study has linked the premature deaths of a staggering 5,000 people a year to emissions from diesel cars across Europe – and the figure could be closer to 10,000 when you include vans and other light commercial vehicles. 

According to the research, the worst country in the European Union for premature deaths due to emissions is Italy, followed by Germany and France. The UK sits in fourth.

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The data, taken from analysis of premature deaths in 2013, shows that 640 premature deaths in the UK were linked to high on-road emissions. If diesel limits had been respected, this figure drops to 320, and if diesel emissions were on par with those released by petrol cars, the figure drops further to 110. 

The chart below shows how UK deaths and diesel emissions compare to other countries in the EU. 

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The findings come from a paper published in the journal Environmental Research Letters by experts from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis and The Norwegian Meteorological Institute. Data about the number of diesel cars, nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions and deaths was analysed across all 28 European member states, Norway and Switzerland. 

EU regulations known as Euro 1 (introduced in 1992) and Euro 6 (introduced in 2014) have worked to improve air quality by attempting to limit emissions from cars and vans. Under Euro 1, catalytic converters became compulsory on new cars sold in the UK. These regulations also define what are considered acceptable limits for exhaust emissions of new light-duty vehicles sold in EU and European Economic Area member states.

 Petrol and diesel engines produce different levels of emissions and, as such, are subject to different standards. Diesel cars, for example, produce more so-called particulate matter (PM) – or soot – specifically PM10s and PM2.5s (the number refers to the size of the particulates). Particulate matter contains microscopic particles that, once inhaled, can cause breathing and cardiovascular damage. They aggravate asthma and can even affect “healthy” people when they reach dangerous levels.

In December 2016, the UK government claimed road transport accounted for 34% of UK NOx emissions throughout 2015. The EU added that NOx emissions in real-life driving conditions are often higher than those measured during approval tests. This means many diesel cars could be breaking the limit, even if they’re approved and comply with the regulations. In fact, research shows that NOx emissions can be four to seven times higher on the road than in official certification tests.

Since the late 1990s, there has been a 50/50 split of diesel and petrol cars in the EU, with estimates claiming there are now more than 100 million diesel cars across the continent – twice as many as in the rest of the world combined.

The recent study found that 425,000 premature deaths annually are associated with the current levels of air pollution in the EU states, Norway and Switzerland and more than 90% are caused by “respiratory and cardiovascular diseases related to exposure to fine particulate matter”.

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This map shows the concentration of fine particulate matter due to excess NOx emissions from diesel cars, vans and light commercial vehicles across Europe. Blue colours indicate low concentrations, orange and red indicates high pollution

Roughly 10,000 premature deaths annually can be attributed to NOx emissions from diesel cars, vans and light commercial vehicles and about half are due to NOx emissions being much higher than limit values in real-world driving.

“If diesel car emissions were as low as petrol car emissions, three-quarters or about 7,500 premature deaths could have been avoided,” said Jens Borken-Kleefeld, a transportation expert at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA).

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To tackle this issue, the UK government recently released a 98-page air-quality plan in which Britain’s environment ministry proposed a ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars across the country from 2040, to coincide with when all vehicles are required to be fully electric.

To comply with these plans, local authorities would be able to charge levies on the drivers of the diesel vehicles on the most polluted roads from 2020, if air quality does not improve. A fortnight later, Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon went a step further.

During a conference in which she outlined her government’s plans for the next year, Sturgeon said the country plans to meet its “low carbon ambitions” by phasing out new petrol and diesel cars and vans in Scotland by 2032. Separately, China is reportedly looking to halt the production and sale of fossil-fuel cars completely.

According to Bloomberg, the world’s second-biggest economy is aiming to establish a deadline for automakers, in what could mark the biggest shift yet towards the global use of electric vehicles.

Images: Johnson et al, 2017; Wikimedia Commons

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