Because of testing
inefficiencies, maintenance inadequacies and other factors, cars, trucks and
buses worldwide emit 4.6 million tons more harmful nitrogen oxide (NOx) than
standards allow, according to a new study co-authored by University of Colorado
Boulder researchers.
The study, published in Nature,
shows these excess emissions alone lead to 38,000 premature deaths annually
worldwide, including 1,100 deaths in the United States.
The findings reveal major
inconsistencies between what vehicles emit during testing and what they emit in
the real world – a problem that’s far more severe, said the researchers, than
the incident in 2015, when federal regulators discovered Volkswagen had been
fitting millions of new diesel cars with “defeat devices.”
Red Diesel Tank, by Meena Kadri [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
The devices sense when a vehicle
is undergoing testing and reduce emissions to comply with government standards.
Excess emissions from defeat devices have been linked to about 50 to 100 U.S.
deaths per year, studies show.
“A lot of attention has been
paid to defeat devices, but our work emphasizes the existence of a much larger
problem,” said Daven Henze, an associate professor of mechanical
engineering at CU Boulder who, along with postdoctoral researcher Forrest
Lacey, contributed to the study. “It shows that in addition to tightening
emissions standards, we need to be attaining the standards that already exist
in real-world driving conditions.”
The research was conducted in
partnership with the International Council on Clean Transportation, a
Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization, and Environmental Health
Analytics LLC.
For the paper, the researchers
assessed 30 studies of vehicle emissions under real-world driving conditions in
11 major vehicle markets representing 80 percent of new diesel vehicle sales in
2015. Those markets include Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the European
Union, India, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Korea and the United States.
They found that in 2015, diesel
vehicles emitted 13.1 million tons of NOx, a chemical precursor to particulate
matter and ozone. Exposure in humans can lead to heart disease, stroke, lung
cancer and other health problems. Had the emissions met standards, the vehicles
would have emitted closer to 8.6 million tons of NOx.
Heavy-duty vehicles, such as
commercial trucks and buses, were by far the largest contributor worldwide,
accounting for 76 percent of the total excess NOx emissions.
Henze used computer modeling and
NASA satellite data to simulate how particulate matter and ozone levels are,
and will be, impacted by excess NOx levels in specific locations. The team then
computed the impacts on health, crops and climate.
“The consequences of excess
diesel NOx emissions for public health are striking,” said Susan Anenberg,
co-lead author of the study and co-founder of Environmental Health Analytics
China suffers the greatest health
impact with 31,400 deaths annually attributed to diesel NOx pollution, with
10,700 of those deaths linked to excess NOx emissions beyond certification
limits. In Europe, where diesel-passenger cars are common, 28,500 deaths
annually are attributed to diesel NOx pollution, with 11,500 of those deaths
linked to excess emissions.
The study projects that by 2040,
183,600 people will die prematurely each year due to diesel vehicle NOx
emissions unless governments act.
The authors say emission
certification tests, both prior to sale and by vehicle owners, could be more
accurate if they were to simulate a broader variety of speeds, driving styles
and ambient temperatures. Some European countries now use portable testing
devices that track emissions of a car in motion.
“Tighter vehicle emission
standards coupled with measures to improve real-world compliance could prevent
hundreds of thousands of early deaths from air pollution-related diseases each
year,” said Anenberg.
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