UK vehicle emissions and sustainable scale – It’s all full of hot air

Written by Millie Hartridge

Vehicle emissions are certainly in the forefront of the UK public’s mind, no better demonstrated by Volkswagen dieselgate. The Hoaxwagen [1] scandal consisted of manipulating technology so that vehicle emissions were remarkably low during laboratory tests. Fast forward to the cars actually being used on roads, and emissions catapulted to alarming levels.

NOx and NO2 are the main pollutants generated as waste product from diesel vehicles [2]. When released into the air, combined with particulate matter, these form a key contributor to climate change. The toxic chemicals in vehicle emissions can also make their way into soil and water cycles [3]. The concentrations of these pollutants are higher in UK cities, particularly London [2,6].

There are a whole host of health conditions that can be triggered or exacerbated by exposure to harmful vehicle emissions; asthma, bronchitis, heart disease, diabetes, lung cancer… [4,5] Worse still, it is estimated that premature deaths related to air pollution are reaching ~40,000 annually, with 9,000 in London alone [6]. Vehicle emissions are a significant contributor to poor air quality.    

So, how have we got into this mess? Well, it’s a question of vehicle emissions polluting on a highly unsustainable scale.   

Ecological economist Herman Daly [7] defines sustainable scale as using materials at a rate which can be regenerated and comfortably absorbed by the environment. The sustainable size of the economy is therefore defined by the size of the ‘fixed’ [7] ecosystem – anything beyond these limits is unsustainable. Unlike neoclassical economic thinking, ecological economists place the economy within the ecosystem, therefore regarding scale with the utmost importance.

The economy heavily relies on road vehicles for individual use – such as going to work and leisure activities – and for the transportation of goods. And 93% of domestic transport greenhouse gas emissions in the UK come from road vehicles [10] – annually, this equates to 90 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent [10].  These huge figures are beyond the limits of the Earth [11] – vehicle emissions in the UK are clearly operating on an unsustainable scale.

But how has the scale of vehicle emissions become unsustainable? Well, there are a few key answers to this.

Firstly, households have more disposable income – money to spend on luxury goods – than 50 years ago [8]. As such, car ownership in the UK has grown, on average, 3% per year since the 1970s [9]. The average household now owns 1.4 cars [9]. Put simply – more vehicles on the road equals more emissions.  

Secondly, 76% of total goods in the UK were transported by vehicle freight last year [10]. The transportation of goods is vital to the economy but such a large proportion of this is arriving via roads.  

Moreover, there is nothing really preventing people in the UK from contributing to unsustainable emissions levels through vehicle use.

True, economic policies such as the Emissions Surcharge [12] in London do exist – paying a fee to enter a particularly highly-polluted area. The charge is directly related to scale; the maximum level of pollution the policy will allow needs to be determined before implementation [7].  Yet drivers are often willing to take the hit, as the benefits of driving into the zone may outweigh the cost. And this is especially the case for businesses who may simply build pollution charges into their budget.

So how can we fix this growing problem? The UK government announced that diesel vehicles will be banned by 2040. Relating to scale, this is an example of a direct regulation economic measure [13] – implementing an outright ban on something which has intolerable costs [13], in this case harmful emissions.  

Banning diesel vehicles is a good idea because it creates the need to look at alternative technologies – electric vehicles for example. Producing zero NOx and NO2, CO2 emissions are on average 22% lower [14] than diesel vehicles. This equates to running costs being reduced by around £60 per year [14].

But how would this work in practice? Well, it’s a question of investment in electric vehicle infrastructure – you wouldn’t buy a new electronic device without having somewhere reliable to charge it, right? Infrastructure needs to primarily come from government, in both supplying electric vehicle charging points, and providing subsides [13] for private businesses to buy this equipment.

The ban of all diesel cars is a step in the right direction to address the unsustainable scale of vehicle emissions. To work, government economic investment, and individual willingness needs to work in harmony to embrace vehicle changes; otherwise, we face embarking on the road to ruin.



[1] Smith, G. and Parloff, R. 2016. Hoaxwagen: How the massive diesel fraud incinerated VW’s reputation – and will hobble the company for years to come. Fortune Magazine. [Online]. 7 March 2016. [Accessed 7th November 2018]. Available from:

[2] Carslaw, D, C. and Rhys-Taylor, G. 2013. New insights from comprehensive on-road measurements of NOx, NO2 and NH3 from vehicle emission remote sensing in London, UK. Atmospheric Environment. 81, pp.339-347.

[3] Kibblewhite, M, G. 2018. Contamination of agricultural soil by urban and peri-urban highways: An overlooked priority? Environmental Pollution. 242, pp.1331-1336.

[4] Gurjar, B, R. Molina, L, T. and Ojha, C, S, P. 2010. Air Pollution: Health and Environmental Impacts. Abingdon: Taylor and Francis Group.

[5] WHO. 2018. Ambient (outdoor) air quality and health. World Health Organisation. [Online]. [A 3rd November 2018]. Available from:

[6] Bennett, R. and Vijaygopal, R. 2018. An assessment of UK’s drivers’ attitudes regarding the forthcoming ban on the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles. Transportation Research. 62, pp.330-344.

[7] Daly, H. E. 1992. Allocation, distribution and scale: towards an economics that is efficient, just, and sustainable. Ecological Economics. 6, pp.185-193.

[8] Office for National Statistics. 2018. Household disposable income and inequality in the UK: financial year ending 2017. [Online]. [A 8th November 2018]. Available from:

[9] Leibling, D. 2008. Car ownership in Great Britain. Royal Automobile Club Foundation for Motoring. [Online]. London: Pall Mall. [Accessed 7th November 2018]. Available from:

[10] DFT. 2017. Transport Statistics Great Britain 2017: 2017 Edition. [Online]. London: Crown. [Accessed 8th Novemeber 2018]. Available from:

[11] Rockstrom, J. W. Steffen, K. Noone, A. Persson, F. S. Chapin, III, E. Lambin, T. M. Lenton, M. Scheffer, C. Folke, H. Schellnhuber, B. Nykvist, C. A. De Wit, T. Hughes, S. van der Leeuw, H. Rodhe, S. Sorlin, P. K. Snyder, R. Costanza, U. Svedin, M. Falkenmark, L. Karlberg, R. W. Corell, V. J. Fabry, J. Hansen, B. Walker, D. Liverman, K. Richardson, P. Crutzen, and J. Foley. 2009. Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecology and Society. 14(2).

[12] Transport for London. 2018. T-Charge TfL.  [Online]. [Accessed 9th November 2018]. Available from:  

[13] Daly, H, E. and Farley, J. 2011. Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications. Washington: Island Press.

[14] Gabbatiss, J. 2018. Each car in London costs NHS and society £8,000 due to air pollution, report finds. The Independent. [Online]. 6 June 2018. [Accessed 9th November 2018]. Available from: