Study: Diesel emissions are higher than expected (and cause 38,000 more deaths each year)

May 19, 2017

Diesel emissions are a serious problem--as serious as a heart attack (literally).

As if that weren't bad enough, this week, a team of researchers from the U.S. and the U.K. published a study showing that emissions from diesel vehicles are far, far worse than official estimates suggest. By the team's calculations, the additional damage to our atmosphere killed 38,000 people in 2015 alone.

Stop us if you've heard this one

Sadly, we've heard this story before. 

In March, scientists at MIT published a shocking study. It showed that pollution from Volkswagen's illegally rigged diesels would cause 1,200 premature fatalities. Most of those deaths could be blamed on cardiopulmonary and respiratory disease, as well as ozone created by the nitrogen oxide emitted by the vehicles.

Worse, the study's fatality predictions focuses solely on Europe. Since atmospheric emissions typically show a flagrant disregard for continental boundaries, folks in other parts of the world will likely suffer as a result of Volkswagen's diesel emissions.

And worse still? The team's figures only took into account emissions from the 2.6 million Volkswagen diesels registered in Germany. The millions of other Volkswagen diesels registered throughout Europe will only magnify the effect. 

New data

The study published this week in the peer-reviewed journal Nature was carried out by a team of 11 researchers led by Susan C. Anenberg and Joshua Miller. (The journal is behind a paywall, but you can read mainstream reports here and here, among other places.) The study's high (or low) points include:

  • There's a serious discrepancy between diesel emissions on the road and emissions measured in lab settings. That's not just because of deceptive manufacturing practices like those carried out by Volkswagen. The researchers show that lab tests around the world simply aren't designed to estimate real-world emissions.
  • On the road, diesel emissions are about 50 percent higher than tests conducted in government labs suggest
  • Government estimates suggest that diesels pump about 9.4 million tons of nitrogen oxide into the air each year. The researchers show, however, that the actual figure is about five tons higher
  • If diesel emissions held to predicted limits, the resulting pollution would cause 70,000 premature deaths each year. 
  • The additional five tons of pollution means additional fatalities--some 38,000 in 2015. Of that figure, 31,400 were linked to soot, with the remaining 6,600 due to smog.
  • Not surprisingly, the countries and regions that rely more heavily on diesel vehicles are suffering the most. Of the additional 38,000 emissions-related deaths in 2015, roughly 11,500 were in Europe, 10,600 were in China, and 9,300 were in India. The effects in Russia and the U.S. were far smaller, but still significant, with 1,100 U.S. fatalities attributed to the pollution.
  • If stricter emissions controls aren't applied to diesels in the near future, the total number of premature deaths could rise from 108,000 today to 174,000 by 2040.

Of course, there are other factors that could nudge the fatality rate up or down--not least of which are the adoption of electric and autonomous vehicles. The former produce no emissions on the road, and the latter dramatically reduce our need to own vehicles and improve traffic flow, cutting emissions further.

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