Something in the air

In a recent report, air pollution has been recognised as one of the top 10 global disease risk factors. Can low carbon vehicles make a difference?

A report published recently in The Lancet medical journal and highlighted here by the Green Car Reports website has investigated ‘the global burden of disease’ between 1990-2010 and listed blood pressure, smoking and alcohol use as the three leading risks to global health in 2010. But the article’s abstract also refers to ‘changes in the magnitude of … ambient particulate matter pollution’. As increasingly affluent populations aspire to the motor car, such pollution will surely increase as global automobility, led by China and India, also increases.

We’ve all seen pictures of the Los Angeles haze and the Beijing smog. From my own experience of walking down Oxford Road in Manchester, reportedly Europe’s busiest bus route, the localised air pollution from the petrol and/or diesel internal combustion engine (ICE) is almost tangible. We drink in an airborne cocktail of carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrous oxides (NOX), ozone (O3), hydrocarbons (HC) and  particulate matter of various sizes (PM10 and PM2.5) along every busy road we walk down. I have to say that I’ve tasted nicer cocktails.

Thanks to improved emission technologies and EU bureaucrats beating car manufacturers with their legislative sticks, cars sold in Europe are much cleaner than they once were and, as a result, air pollution from the internal combustion engine has greatly reduced, and will continue to do so. Yet we should remember that this is perhaps tantamount to ‘running to stand still’, as localised air pollution will continue to be a problem as car numbers increase.

The electric vehicle (EV), promoted ostensibly as low carbon transport, provides an answer to this issue. Admittedly, the environmental credentials of EVs are called into question given a largely fossil-fuelled mode of electricity generation and, with a blinkered government seemingly intent on pursuing fossil fuels at the expense of renewable energy sources, it is true to say that the UK’s current energy mix means that equivalent CO2 emission figures of EVs – while still lower than those of ICEs – may not be quite as hoped.

But in focussing on carbon reduction, we may overlook the fact that EVs not only lack tailpipe CO2 emissions – they also lack tailpipe emissions of CO, SO2, NOX, O3, HC and PM; any tailpipe emissions, in fact. While accused by some of merely transferring carbon emissions, EVs could actually play a real part in reducing more localised, urban air pollution.

But the fact that the car is more than mere transport means that there’s more to reducing local emissions than simply changing technologies.

Will cars like the Renault Twizy lead the charge (ahem) to a low carbon urban automobility? (Picture source: author's photograph)

Will cars like the Renault Twizy lead the charge (ahem) to a low carbon urban automobility? (Picture source: author’s photograph)

For example, in an earlier post, Défense de fumer, I mused upon my cultural unease about the potential exclusion of les voitures iconique from the streets of Paris on account of their age related emissions, and wondered if EVs like the AutoLib Bollore BlueCar or Renault Twizy might become new Parisian automotive icons. Cars don’t just carry people; indeed it is precisely because they carry people that they inevitably carry experiences and meanings. My early research suggests that EVs provide a different experience of, and meaning to, how we present and perform – or affect – individual automobilities and I wonder about the degree to which we are culturally ready to change ‘how’ we go from here. Can we change? Do we even want to?

EVs may not be the answer to the environmental impact of the car; they are instead an answer. Costs, practicalities and even desirability would appear to demand a suite of technologies to ameliorate our automotive environmental impacts, and the electric car is perhaps the most immediate answer to the provision of a low carbon automobility. Even if we are absolutely wedded to the notion of personal mobility and to our beloved cars, a wider adoption of EVs in an urban environment would at least mean that we can all start to breathe easier.

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2 thoughts on “Something in the air

  1. Pingback: Smog on the Seine | autohabitus

  2. Pingback: Dispatching diesel | autohabitus

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