Our Cars Shouldn't Be The Air Pollution Scapegoats

Tesla Model S burnout 1 photo
Photo: Catalin Garmacea
Firstly, I would like to make something clear. I'm what you would call an old-school petrolhead that literally enjoys the smell of burned gasoline (and rubber), and I frequently prefer to hear the sound of the engine instead of the radio on short drives.
Secondly, and strictly connected to the first, I'm not (always) an idiot. I know how an internal combustion engine (ICE) works and how bad for your health is what comes out of the tailpipe of a car.

That said, I also know that environmental laws aren't treating everyone equally, and this has lead to a very disproportionate way of looking at polluters in general. The advent (and resurrection) of electric and hybrid cars has only made it worse from this perspective, especially since most “green” cars out there are being advertised using the downsides of ICE cars. It's almost like hip hop dissing tracks in the early 1990s.

The “I'm better because you're worse” fallacy has made a lot not think about who are the real bad guys regarding air pollution.

For one thing, another common fallacy states that two wrongs can't make a right. And in many ways, this is what most of Europe's environmental laws have been doing in the last couple of decades. By basing the legislation mainly on CO2 emissions, which are indeed responsible for the melting of the Polar ice caps and that giant hole in the ozone layer, Europe has in fact forced most carmakers to promote diesel cars, while also starting an entire market trend.

Partly thanks to Volkswagen's Dieselgate scandal, the public is slowly starting to realize that it's wrong to concentrate exclusively on CO2. We should treat all the other types of emissions equally, should we not? Well, I'm not necessarily talking about livestock here, although factory farming apparently accounts for almost 40 percent of CH4 methane emissions, which is about 20 times more potent than CO2 in creating global warming.

Plus, numerous studies have started to confirm that the use of water for livestock production and agriculture is an increasing contributing factor to fresh water depletion.

I don't want to talk about cows and pigs, though, but about the industries that are either poorly or not regulated at all when it comes to emissions.

The way things are looking out now, in about a decade internal combustion engines will be like punk music nowadays. Not dead yet but not having the best of days either. The thing is, it's mostly passenger cars that are being pushed to change while other polluting industries seem to get a free pass in the club.

According to an environmental organization that used to go by the name Blacksmith Institute and is now called Pure Earth, one of the most toxic industries on the planet is Lead-Acid Battery Recycling, followed from the distance by stuff like chemical manufacturing and the dye industry.

Now, I don't want to include every single polluting industry in this diatribe but mainly speak about those that don't make the news on a daily basis (for this specific reason, ed).

The world's largest cruise ship ever started its first commercial voyage on Sunday, May 22, 2016. It was built to hold up to 6,780 passengers and 2,100 crew members and looks pretty much like a floating and very luxurious Las Vegas hotel. Since we've long replaced veils for the propulsion of such behemoths, the Harmony of the Seas has to get around the world's oceans using a pair of 16-cylinder diesel engines that are each about as large as a small apartment building.

It's not the only large cruise ship on the planet, and the vast majority of them use similar means of propulsion. Care to guess how much does an average cruise ship pollute our planet's air? According to German pollution analyst Axel Friedrich, just one of these babies can emit a similar amount of CO2 as 83,678 passenger cars.

Sure, you may say, but there are plenty more cars on the road than cruise ships for rich retirees, right? Not to mention that earlier I talked about how we shouldn't concentrate so much on CO2 but on the other types of emissions, right? Well, allow me to extrapolate, because luxury cruise ships emit more than CO2, and they do it at a much higher level than you would expect.

According to the same environmental regulator, who used to be the head of the transport department at Germany's Federal Environmental Agency, a single cruise ship also emits as much NOx as no less 421,153 passenger cars going the same distance. Not impressed yet? How about when you hear that it emits as much particle emissions as over a million cars? Still no? Well, that bugger also releases as much sulfur dioxide as… wait for it… 376 million passenger cars.

Currently, there are 64 cruise ships not much smaller than the Harmony of the Seas on the planet, and another 38 are currently being built. I'll let you do the math on that since the vast majority of them are powered by diesel engines that emit similar amounts of pollutants into the atmosphere.

Carrying on, you might think that I have something against those old geezers chilling on the deck, by an enormous pool and with glasses of Daiquiri in their hands. Far from it, as I will probably do the same when I'm old.

No, that is not the issue, that is just one of the issues, because the transportation industry consists of more than passenger cars and cruise ships, is it not? How about planes? Everybody likes planes, especially when they don't crash and the airlines give you a seat by the window and with plenty of leg room and/or a free drink on longer trips.

Well, according to research made by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, unregulated emissions from planes that are flying above 3,000 feet (914 meters) are responsible for a motley array of air pollutants, including NOx and sulfur dioxide. How much, exactly? To put things into perspective, it doesn't really matter if you like or hate flying, because studies show that you are more likely to succumb from airplane pollution than in a plane crash.

While the average death toll from plane crashes sits at around a thousand people annually, the toxic pollutants expelled by the world's airplanes are responsible for around ten thousand people each and every year. I don't know how many planes are in the air at any given time, but it's probably safe to say that whatever is their number, it's definitely on the rise.

In other words, and to cut this rant a bit short, maybe our legislators should cut ICE cars some slack in the next few decades and maybe concentrate more on the real bad guys out there. Everyone talks about CO2 and Dieselgate and so on and so forth. Most hybrid and electric car commercials show flowers blooming and make their customers think that they're the real version of Captain Planet and the Planeteers, all while old-school petrolheads are being flamed for driving what makes their senses tingle with joy and is more than an appliance on wheels.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't embrace greener cars, that is not the point, but don't try to pick with all your strength on just one single issue while leaving all the others to escape the spotlight. In the immortal words of George Carlin: “The planet is fine. The people are f****d.
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About the author: Alex Oagana
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Alex handled his first real steering wheel at the age of five (on a field) and started practicing "Scandinavian Flicks" at 14 (on non-public gravel roads). Following his time at the University of Journalism, he landed his first real job at the local franchise of Top Gear magazine a few years before Mircea (Panait). Not long after, Alex entered the New Media realm with the project.
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