Air pollution is cutting years off lifespans, diesel trucks and buses are a major cause

by CCAC secretariat - 2 March, 2020
Vehicle emissions alone were responsible for an estimated 385,000 deaths in 2015, which is why the Climate and Clean Air’s work to mitigate them is more important than ever.

From the hundreds of thousands of Thai students kept home from school in Bangkok, to warnings in London that those with heart or lung problems should reduce strenuous outdoor activity, to the New Year’s Day pollution levels in New Delhi 20 times higher than what is considered safe, the signs that 2020 will be plagued by toxic air pollution are already abundant. 

Every person loses almost two years of their life, on average, thanks to air pollution. In fact, with nine out of ten people in the world breathing polluted air––and around 7 million dying from it annually––it is the world’s greatest health threat, eclipsing scourges like HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, and is having an equivalent effect as smoking.

Air pollution is mostly caused by human activities like driving cars and heavy-duty, diesel-powered trucks and buses, and burning coal. Vehicle emissions alone were responsible for an estimated 385,000 premature deaths in 2015 (about 11.4 percent of air pollution deaths that year). In total, tailpipe emissions resulted in a whopping 7.8 million years of life lost and $1 trillion in health damages in 2015.

A big culprit is the fine particulate matter (also known as PM2.5) in air pollution. These particles are so small that it can infiltrate the lungs and cardiovascular system, spiking the risk of a variety of chronic diseases, including stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and pneumonia. Black carbon, a super-pollutant that also contributes to climate change, is a key ingredient in the formation of PM2.5 air pollution.

PM 2.5 particles are small enough to enter the bloodstream

“When we reduce air pollution from diesel sources, we get a reduction in black carbon emissions. This is a huge win for air quality and the climate,” said Josh Miller of the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT). “There’s huge local public health benefits from acting and we have the added international rationale to act because it also benefits climate change.”

One strategy to combat this problem is the global desulfurization of on-road fuels which could avoid 500,000 deaths every year by 2050 and save $18 trillion in health costs (16 times more than desulfurization would cost). It’s a strategy many countries, particularly in Europe and North America, have already taken by moving toward fuels with low and ultra low-sulfur levels, which have substantially less harmful emissions. However, over half the world’s countries – mostly low and middle income countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America – haven’t yet done so. It is critical for global health and the climate, to support these countries move to cleaner fuels.    

To do this, The Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) developed a Global Strategy to Introduce Low-Sulfur Fuels and Cleaner Diesel Vehicles which, if fully implemented, could come close to eliminating on-road high sulfur fuels and reduce at least 90 percent of small particulate emissions and black carbon from on-road vehicles.

One relatively easy approach is to retrofit diesel particulate filters onto older vehicles. This can reduce particle mass from a 2004 engine by 90 percent and ultrafine particles by a factor of 100 (at a minimum). Countries that import fuel should adopt national and regional standards for cleaner fuel and technology, while countries that have refining capacity, like Nigeria, India, and Kuwait, should invest in upgrading their refineries so they produce fuels with ultra low sulfur levels. This will require private sector participation. All countries must adopt vehicle emission standards in addition to low sulfur standards.

17899121281_71ddac78d9_o (2).jpg
An old diesel bus spews black smoke in Addis Abbaba, Ethiopia

Progress is growing steadily around the world. Cleaner fuel standards were first developed in a handful of countries, starting with the United States in 2007 and then followed by European countries a couple years later. Soon countries like Japan, South Korea, and Turkey did the same. As of July 2019, 39 countries have implemented soot free standards and five more (Brazil, China, Colombia, India, and Mexico) plan to implement them before 2025.

But this progress needs to be spread more equally throughout the globe. Partially as a result of imbalanced regulation, more than 90 percent of air pollution deaths occur in poorer countries, primarily in Asia and Africa.

“Beyond the world’s largest vehicle makers there is a huge need to continue advancing progress towards these standards which benefit public health and climate in emerging markets including Africa, the Middle East, and Asia,” said Miller.

Nigeria, for example, is the largest vehicle market in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Vehicle fuels can have 100 times the sulfur levels  allowed in Europe, 90 percent of vehicles imported into Nigeria are second hand, and there are no age restrictions on imported commercial vehicles, meaning that cheap vehicles that don’t meet higher standards are being dumped in the country. As demand for vehicles grows, so do the impacts. Nigeria has the world’s seventh largest population, and it is expected to double over the next 30 years. Between 2010 and 2015, the health burden from road transportation increased by 25 percent and  the monetary cost to Nigeria has been estimated at $42 billion.

Countries are working to prevent the damaging impacts of air pollution. In December 2018, ECOWAS met for a two-day workshop supported by the CCAC. Country representatives agreed to maximum levels of sulfur in imported fuels and minimum emissions standards for new vehicles. Benin, Togo, and Mali have implemented tighter regulations. And on the other side of the continent, the East African Community became the first African region to transition to low sulfur fuels in 2015.

Soot Free Bus Santiago April 2016.jpg
A soot-free bus in Santiago, Chile

In September 2018. a South American summit on vehicle emissions control was held in Buenos Aires, Argentina to help regulators improve emissions compliance and enforcement, and transition to soot free transport. The countries that attended developed a joint regional workplan to implement measures such as adopting soot-free engine standards, improving fuel quality, and enforcing these changes. In both Paraguay and the Dominican Republic, the United Nations Environment Program supported cost-benefit studies of these kinds of interventions.

To fully accomplish the necessary progress, however, a myriad of strategies supported by the CCAC must be utilised. These include  entirely non-diesel alternatives for vehicles, like compressed natural gas, biofuels, hybrid-electric or fully electric vehicles. Another option is subjecting fuels to desulfurization processes like hydrotreating which minimizes the sulfur content. The CCAC also supports individual behavioral change by encouraging active transport like walking and cycling,  choosing public transportation, and prioritizing trains instead of planes where possible. Governments are encouraged to put in place policies and infrastructure that enable this type of behavioural change. 

It’s work with a potentially high-payoff.  According to a CCAC commissioned report by the  ICCT implementing the CCAC-supported work  could reduce diesel black carbon emission to 88 percent below 2010 levels by 2040. Moreover, if fully implemented by 2050, it could avoid 500,000 deaths every year while preventing up to 0.2 degrees Celsius of warming over the next 20 to 40 years. Even steeper goals, however, are necessary to stick within global warming targets.

With just over a decade to prevent warming above 1.5 degrees Celsius, interim measures are also necessary. As the global population grows, sowill the need to transport people and goods around the world.  Governments will need all methods at their disposal to meet the growing demand while avoiding catastrophic warming and effects on human health.