Please click here for the home page

How cars and other vehicles affect pollution

With global sea levels having risen 8 inches over the past 100 years, temperature rises of 2.2 degrees F (1.1 degrees C) since the industrial revolution and huge decreases in the mass of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, it is clear that pollution driven climate change is a severe problem. When discussing pollution, many commentators choose to focus on the transport industry, and cars in particular. Is this justified? Here are the facts regarding how cars are affecting pollution.

How cars pollute the atmosphere

Car insurance (see for some cheap quotes) isn't the only price we pay for our personal transport. It is correct to say that cars, particularly 'traditional' petrol and diesel cars, contribute to air pollution. Carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, particulate matter (such as soot) and hydrocarbons are the main pollutants produced by cars. As well as eroding the ozone layer and contributing to the greenhouse effect, these pollutants have an adverse effect on human health causing respiratory problems and increasing our risk of contracting cancer, for example. Overall, petrol cars pollute much more than diesel cars: a diesel car without a catalytic converter produces just 2% of the carbon produced by a petrol car without a catalytic converter, just 3% of the hydrocarbons and 85% of the carbon dioxide. However, whilst petrol cars do not produce any substantial levels of particulate matter, diesel cars without catalytic converters do produce large amounts of this pollutant, and the particulate sizes are much finer, and are very dangerous to our lungs. Though an individual motor vehicle will have a negligible effect on the environment, when put together all of the cars, trucks and lorries in the world produce around 20% of the world's CO2 emissions, 72% of nitrous oxide pollution and 52% of hydrocarbon emissions.

What is at the root of the problem with cars and pollution?

There are two ways of looking at this issue. The first is to state that we need to stop being dependent on cars altogether. In 2010, there were over a billion motor vehicles at use in the world, and this number has been rising. Why use cars at all when public transport or walking and cycling will do? These tend to be greener, healthier ways of getting around. Another way of looking at the problem is to say that the damage is caused not by our dependency on cars as such but rather on the types of cars and fuels that we use.

How can we alleviate the problem of pollution caused by cars?

Using cars less and public transport more, and engaging in practices like car pooling or cycling to work will mean that fewer vehicles are on the roads, polluting our air. Changes can also be made to the fuels we use. The simple introduction of a catalytic converter into a petrol engine can reduce its CO emissions by 60%, but more still can be done. Switching to hydrogen, natural gas, alcohol based fuels and electric cars will all mean that our vehicles have lower carbon footprints that petrol and diesel fuelled cars. When driving an electric car, it is crucial to consider how the electricity was generated: if it was generated using coal (which results in very high CO2 emissions during the electricity generation process), it is far from a 'green' alternative to petrol. Another option is 'city diesel', a relatively new type of fuel developed in Sweden that can reduce a car's overall emissions by 34-85% depending on the vehicle and engine type.

The bigger picture

Cars are not the only aspect of the transport industry. Though there are fewer of them in the world, large container ships are responsible for more pollution than all of the world's cars combined. This problem is particularly severe as the shipping industry has historically been subject to fewer environmental regulations than the road based transport industry. Moreover, it is estimated by scientists that the biggest culprit when it comes to CO2 emissions is not the transport industry at all, but rather the meat, dairy and egg industries. Animal agriculture is responsible for around two thirds (65%) of human related emissions on the planet. Thus, even if we did all stop driving our cars immediately, we would not be able to halt climate change unless we also cut animal products significantly from our diets and lifestyles.


There is no doubt that all cars generate some form of pollution - it has been calculated that around 5, 000 people die in the UK each year as a direct result of respiratory illnesses related to road traffic pollution. This makes road traffic pollution deadlier than car accidents. Nevertheless, choosing greener fuels and driving less will help to reduce vehicle based emissions. Simply cutting back on your car use and switching to battery operated power will not solve climate change, however, as other industries - notably the animal agriculture industry - are contributing huge amounts to the emission of greenhouse gases.

Copyright All Rights Reserved HOME