Blog: Clean Air Day – the cost of air pollution from UK cars and vans

21 Jun 2018

My new collaboration with researchers at the University of Bath has shed light on the damaging health consequences of Britain’s addiction to motorised travel, particularly in inner cities. Cars and vans alone cost our NHS and society in general more than £6 billion per year – and nearly 90% of the total comes from the impact of diesel emissions!

The health damage caused by vehicle emissions

Commissioned by Global Action Plan – who coordinate Clean Air Day on 21 June – our in-depth analysis found that the damage to health caused by diesel vehicle emissions are around 20 times more than those from electric vehicles and at least five times more than those associated with petrol vehicles. Exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) from cars and vans is linked to an estimated 10,000 early deaths. This compares to the roughly 98,000 preventable deaths attributable to smoking in the UK.

Location specific costs rise in urban areas

The research generated location-specific per vehicle costs for cars and vans in the UK. Using the ‘impact pathway approach’ and unit damage cost values recommended by the UK government, alongside fleet make up, technology-specific pollutant emissions and miles driven, we created a simple but robust model of individual vehicle damage costs.

Every time these vehicles are driven, they have a significant impact on our long-term health, equivalent to £1,641 per average UK car and £5,107 per average UK van over typical vehicle lifetimes.

We also found that location matters. Costs are much greater in urban areas than they are for those in rural areas. In inner city areas such as inner London:

  • Average costs to the NHS and wider society are £7,714 and £24,004 for a typical UK car and van, respectively
  • The health damage cost from diesel cars is £16,424 and vans £24,555 over its lifetime
  • Petrol vehicle damage costs are £2,327 and £10,101 for cars and vans, respectively
  • Petrol hybrids cars have a damage cost of £1,824
  • Battery electric cars and vans have the lowest costs, coming in at as £827 and £1,443 respectively

Using the standard UK ‘impact pathway approach’ we estimate that cars and vans are responsible for more than a quarter (£5.9 billion a year) of the total UK health damage costs from air pollution, with cars contributing about a sixth (£3.8 billion) and vans about a tenth (£2.2 billion).

The extent of the challenge 

These results raise important questions as to how best to develop effective and fair air quality and transport strategies. Given the scale of the challenge of cleaning the air in our cities and towns, the UK Government, in its own admission, acknowledges that existing strategies, plans and measures will only deliver the pollutant emissions reductions needed to meet UK air quality standards for NOX by the mid 2020s. The challenge is even greater if we adhered to the tougher air quality standards recommended by the WHO.

Clean Air Day

2018’s Clean Air Day is intended to show people how they can protect themselves and their families from air pollution, improve the quality of the air that they breathe and generally live cleaner, healthier lives. Whilst converting from diesel to petrol cars could be seen as a way to reduce air pollution it still increases carbon emissions and so does not solve the local air pollution problem.

The impact of individual choices

Swapping 1 in 4 car journeys in urban areas for walking or cycling could save over £1.1 billion in health damage costs per year. Whilst switching 1 million cars from diesel to electric would save more than £360 million per year in health costs from local air pollution. This demonstrates the impact that people’s individual choices can have, so we would look to the government to use Clean Air Day as a springboard for year round public engagement through its new clean air strategy.

Download the full report here