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We’re suffocating on the fumes of our own consumption.

Written by Lauren Kemp

Ecological Economics

Air pollution is often seen as a product of modern living, of industrialisation and urbanisation and is essentially taken for granted. A primary source of urban air pollution in the 21st Century is the transport sector. It’s apparent now more than ever that there are too many cars on the roads, with emissions outpacing the earth’s ability to safely absorb them. The current scale is simply unsustainable. The environment has limits and there’s only so far we can push them before the damage becomes irreversible .

The reality is that modern day motor vehicles emit an array of pollutants  severely detrimental to both human health and the environment. With over 30 million cars on UK roads alone in 2016 , it appears we plan on living up to our title of ‘the dirty man of Europe’. To put this social crisis into perspective, the city of London managed to breach the 2017 annual air pollution limit set by the EU in just 5 days . With conditions like this, people will inevitably begin to suffer.

Health issues

Air pollution has been linked to a wide variety of health issues worldwide, breathing in heavily polluted air can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and even mental health issues . Fine particles emitted by cars, consisting of solid materials and liquid droplets are particularly dangerous as they’re small enough to be inhaled deeply into the lungs. Exposure to small amounts over a long period of time can be hugely damaging to human health; these particles alone account for 29,000 deaths a year in the UK4.

What makes emissions from cars so unique and so especially dangerous is that they are released in such close proximity to humans . People living in urban areas are particularly subject to prolonged exposure and dealing with the effects of this level of exposure can be a huge burden on health care providers. Furthermore, an unhealthy or ailing workforce can put massive strain on an economy . Lost production hours alongside billions of pounds spent annually on health costs related to air pollution should be avoidable.

What’s fuelling it?

Even though the negative effects of the automotive industry are well known, it doesn’t seem that our global lust for motor vehicles is going to slow any time soon, and why would it? Governments within the EU and further afield seem only too happy to support the operations of car manufacturers, despite the manufacturers themselves frequently lobbying for less stringent emissions regulations .

Economic growth and GDP figures have become a primary focus for governments worldwide in the last 100 years2. The automotive industry helps economies to grow, hence why governments and policy makers support it. As well as providing jobs, car manufacturers entice people into spending their hard-earned money by playing up to western consumerism. This focus on materialistic living is fuelled by the policy makers of the world , because consumer spending is good for growth; making the car industry invaluable.

However, an overriding focus on growth can lead to unrestrained purchasing and subsequently, levels of pollution that simply aren’t sustainable. Western attitudes to consumption can and do have hugely negative effects on people’s health and well-being , however it seems that we consistently choose possessions over what’s best for the planet and for each other.

Where next?

Britain recently announced a ban on all petrol and diesel cars from 2040 onwards. Policy makers seem to have recognised the extent of the issue, claiming that the severely poor air quality within the UK ‘poses the largest environmental risk to public health’ . 2040 is a long way off, now is the time to look to alternatives.

If growth Is the ultimate aim, a move towards electric vehicles could be the most sustainable answer. Innovation within the green transport sector and the investment that comes along with it could help to plug the gap that petrol and diesel cars leave behind . However, this comes with its own broader environmental issues.  Although health damaging tailpipe emissions would be cut, clearing inner-city smog; carbon footprints would remain largely unchanged. Electric cars still require energy to run, as well as the infrastructure to keep them running15.

Perhaps it’s time to ditch the car all together, to move away from a focus on GDP and look towards greener modes of transport; in the form of buses, mass transit rail and even less infrastructure intensive forms of urban transport such as cycling and walking. This could have life changing effects for society and help us to ensure that we remain within environmental limits. Do we want to end up in the same position as Delhi , with toxic levels of air pollution and smog engulfing the city, all for the sake of economic growth?


Lauren Kemp

MSc Sustainability and Consultancy 2017/18