The transport sector is one of the most impactful sectors across society in a few different ways.
In this guide, we outline the potential impact of transport and vehicle pollution on both the environment, and humans (health and safety).
Summary – What Is The Impact Of Transport & Vehicles On The Environment & Humans?
What Causes Transport Pollution To Have An Impact On The Environment & Humans
The combustion of petroleum based fuels and fossil fuel based fuels at the operation stage is perhaps the main cause of impact right now
Other contributing factors might arise at the different stages of a vehicle’s lifecycle – including sourcing and mining of materials, leaking oil, waste disposal and scrapping of a vehicle (as well as recycling), and more
Something else worth noting is that although improvements have been made on things such as fuel efficiency or reducing tailpipe emissions over the last few decades, other aspects of transport such as the total number of miles driven, and numbers of vehicles on the road are not decreasing.
pollutionissues.com outlines something similar to this: ‘While new cars and light trucks emit about 90 percent fewer pollutants than they did three decades ago, total annual vehicle-miles driven have increased by more than 140 percent since 1970 and are expected to increase …’
Potential Impact Of Transport On The Environment
Potential impacts can be split into direct and indirect impacts.
– Direct Impacts
Greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change
A decrease in air quality via the release of air pollutants/chemicals like particulates, carbon monoxide and other air pollutants
– Indirect Impacts
Water pollution (water pollution via acid rain or via urban road runoff of oil and car liquids into natural water sources and the ocean), waste pollution, and other types of pollution
Another indirect impact might be the mining of materials for use in cars – mining can have several potential negative side effects
helpsavenature.com also outlines how acid rain (which transport contributes to) can damage crops, forests and other vegetation and buildings
Potential Impact Of Transport On Humans
Potential impacts can be split into direct and indirect impacts.
There’s also short term vs long term impacts to consider
– Direct Impacts
Immediate loss in air quality that humans breathe in, from air contaminants and air pollution
Noise pollution can also be another direct impact
– Indirect Impacts
An indirect impact of transport on humans might be the eventual loss of water quality in some bodies from air pollution, oil run off, or other issues that transport contributes to
Another indirect impact might be the potential impact of climate change on sectors like agriculture (via a change in rainfall patterns, growing seasons, frequency of droughts etc.)
Another indirect impact might include acid rain and the impact it can have on different areas of society
Other indirect impacts might relate to how transport uses resources.
Examples of this include the land footprint of transport (for roads, infrastructure, car parks, etc), the water footprint, the use of scarce resources like fossil fuels and precious metals, and so on
– Short Term vs Long Term
On a short term scale, air pollution might cause breathing and health problems for vulnerable groups, or those with pre-existing conditions
On a long term scale, air pollution might contribute to premature death in some vulnerable groups of people.
This is what’s known as an intergenerational issue (e.g. some respiratory or cancer related diseases might take years and decades to develop and show serious symptoms)
And, greenhouse gas emissions might contribute to climate change over the course of decades
What Causes Transport Pollution To Impact The Environment & Humans?
Primarily, the combustion and burning of petroleum based products and fossil fuel based fuels (gasoline and diesel for example) is the main cause of greenhouse gas emissions, and also outdoor air pollutants, from transport (mainly passenger cars and light trucks).
nationalgeographic.com outlines something similar to this ‘Most of an automobiles’ environmental impact, perhaps 80 to 90 percent, will be due to fuel consumption and emissions of air pollution and greenhouse gases’
But, there’s also the potential for environmental impact at the other stages or during other activities in a vehicle’s life cycle.
You need steel, rubber, glass, plastics, paints and other materials to make a vehicle – these materials have to be mined (mining has a number of potential impacts), sourced, fabricated, transported (in the case of oil – there can be water oil spills).
Materials and car parts need to be shipped and transported multiple times
Then there’s manufacturing of the vehicles (there’s a carbon/energy footprint, and waste from manufacturing – including the water footprint of waste water)
Then operation (combustion of fossil fuels leads to carbon emissions and air contaminants being released), and operation also includes things such as repairs, servicing and maintenance, replacing tires, washing and cleaning, and so on
Then disposal/recycling – Plastics, toxic battery acids, and other products may stay in the environment. About three-quarters of today’s average car, including the bulk of a steel frame, can be recycled. (nationalgeographic.com)
How Transport & Vehicle Pollution Impacts The Environment
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
On a global level, transport is responsible for about 14% of all emissions.
Read more about transport and greenhouse gas emissions in this guide.
Read more about transport and outdoor air pollution in this guide.
As a summary though:
Some of the highest concentrations of air pollution happens in cities, where there is the most traffic and vehicles
Primary ingredients and pollutants of vehicular air pollution are ozone, smaller and larger particulate matter ((PM2.5) and (PM10)), nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, VOC’s and toxics.
sciencing.com also outlines how hydrocarbons, benzene and formaldehyde might come from road transport
There’s also secondary pollutants, such as where nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can combine to form ozone (summer smog).
[In the US] about one-third of all U.S. air pollution (nationalgeographic.com)
epa.vic.gov.au outlines all the air pollutants cars are responsible for in Melbourne in Australia, and in what %’s
pollutionissues.com, helpsavenature.com, sciencing.com and epa.vic.gov.au outline some other issues related to transport and air pollution
Air pollutants from transport might come from:
Vehicular exhaust contributes to the majority of carbon monoxide let into our atmosphere
Particle pollution [particulate matter] mainly comes from motor vehicles, wood burning heaters and industry
[Ozone is] formed when pollutants emitted by cars, power plants, industrial boilers, refineries, chemical plants, and other sources chemically react in the presence of sunlight
Most of the nitrogen dioxide in cities [in Australia] comes from motor vehicle exhaust (about 80%)
[In terms of VOCs in the UK, majority] comes from transport, including distribution and extraction losses – 50% of total
In 2013, transportation contributed more than half of the carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, and almost a quarter of the hydrocarbons emitted into our air (ucsusa.org)
Includes but isn’t limited to:
Pollutants from car exhausts (like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide) mix with rain to create acid rain, which can fall into the ocean and also surface water sources
Oil spills of ships and tankers carrying oil can happen in the ocean
There can be urban and road run off from vehicles into both fresh water and ocean water sources
There can be leakage from underground fuel storage tanks, which gets into soil and water sources
helpsavenature.com and sciencing.com outline more about transport and water pollution
Read more about the different types of water pollution and water pollution from transport in this guide.
Read more about the potential ways transport and vehicles contribute to waste pollution in this guide.
[Car pollution can affect] air, soil and water quality (sciencing.com)
Roads and transport infrastructure increase urban sprawl and the land use footprint of vehicles as we build more highways and other infrastructure
Mining fossil fuels and car materials also has a land footprint and can permanently impact land use and degrade land
Soil contamination is also possible at sites formerly used as fuel stations
Variables To How Much Transport & Vehicles Impact The Environment
Read more about the different variables for transport that can impact how environmentally friendly it is in this guide.
How Transport & Vehicle Pollution Impacts Humans
Air Pollution & Lowering Of Air Quality
Air pollutants (like particulates) can decrease air quality (particularly in cities and heavily populated areas with a high density of vehicles), which humans have to breathe.
There can be shorter term effects on health, but also longer term impacts on health, and sometimes even premature death.
Air pollutants have been linked to respiratory diseases, cancers and other health issues for humans
Some groups of people, especially those with pre-existing conditions, might be at more risk than others.
sciencing.com, solarquotes.com.au, helpsavenature.com and pollutionissues.com all discuss the potential impact of air pollution from transport on air quality and human health
Read more about transport and outdoor air pollution, and the potential impact on human health in this guide.
Greenhouse Gases & Climate Change
In terms of greenhouse gases, combustion of fuel can emit carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide (but mostly carbon dioxide) – both warming agents for the climate.
Climate change may impact many areas of society, such as the weather, liveability of certain places, agriculture, natural events, water scarcity, and more.
Can be an inconvenience, and in some instances, may contribute to hearing loss over the long term if the traffic is noisy enough.
Transport has a water footprint as an industry.
And, there is a water footprint across the entire lifecycle of a vehicle.
It takes about 39,000 gallons of water to produce the average domestic car, including the tires (Major water uses in the automotive manufacturing industry include surface treatment and coating, paint spray booths, washing/rinsing/hosing, cooling, air conditioning systems and boilers)
But, there’s also water used at the mining and sourcing of materials stage, water used to produce electricity for electric cars, water used for refining petroleum based fuels, and many other instances of water use.
Water footprint matters as humans should try to sustainably manage the use of water as a resource.
Land Use & Land Footprint
Roads and transport infrastructure increases urban sprawl and land use footprint of vehicles as we build more highways, other infrastructure, and things like carparks
Mining fossil fuels and car materials also has a land footprint
Land is another resource humans should try to sustainably manage
Use Of Scarce Resources
Fossil fuels like oil (for gasoline/petrol) and coal (for EVs) – are finite
This raises sustainability issues as we consume more of the remaining supply.
There’s also the use of precious metals in electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles (for catalytic converters and other uses) to consider – precious metals are also a scarce resource.
Humans should try to manage both of these resources sustainably.
Read more about sustainability in transport in this guide
Economic Cost Of Transport Pollution
What is not spoken about often is the potential economic impact of transport related pollution.
This might come from the burden placed on the public health system, but also on things such as addressing environmental pollution, clean ups, etc.
… air pollution from cars could be … costing Australia over $10 billion a year. (solarquotes.com.au)