If you’ve ever had the misfortune of standing on the wrong side of a bus or long-haul truck as it accelerates past you, you’ll know intimately that noxious feeling of diesel soot coating your face and running down your throat. Diesel vehicles may be more fuel efficient than regular gasoline cars but they also pour out smog-inducing nitrogen oxides (NOx) and various other toxic particulates in their wake.
So it’s no wonder many countries employ emissions standards to regulate and reduce pollution levels. Yet one study published in Nature found that almost half of all diesel vehicles on the road today fail to meet official emissions limits. And the excess levels of pollution contributed to 38,000 premature deaths in 2015.
Most of them aren’t occurring in the U.S., which only represented 1,100 fatalities. Instead, most deaths were concentrated in the European Union, where diesel-powered cars are less regulated than in other countries, and from China and India, where larger-hauling trucks account for most of the deadly emissions. These vehicles spewed out 4.6 million tons of excess emissions globally. That’s according to data gathered across 11 countries which totaled 80 percent of global diesel vehicle sales.
It’s actually nothing new to say the nitrogen oxides in diesel fuel emissions are linked to premature deaths. Nor was it previously unknown that automakers will sometimes willfully cheat emissions tests and build cars that emit more fuel in real-world conditions. Just look at the Volkswagen scandal of 2015 in which the company built “defeat devices” that allowed their diesel cars to run cleaner in lab tests than on the road.
What’s most eye-opening about this study is that it’s quantified the global death toll caused by excess emissions from diesel vehicles. While the researchers make it crystal clear how we can fix this problem: countries need to enforce better emissions standards.
“Manufacturers know how to make their cars clean and they are actively choosing not to,” research team member, Ray Minjares, said according to the Guardian. “The question for the public is: are we comfortable with that situation? Why are manufacturers who sell vehicles in Europe choosing to provide Europe with dirtier versions of the cars they sell in the US?”
The team made a point to highlight that many vehicles already meet current emissions standards, so it’s not unrealistic to expect companies to comply with those regulations across the board in all vehicle models.
At stake are hundreds of thousands more lives. The study estimated cleaner standards on diesel vehicles could avoid 174,000 deaths by 2040.