WHO: green cars still hurt health

Greener vehicles won't make us healthier. They'll have no effect on the human misery from accidents, pollution and physical sloth linked to car culture, say health experts.

Transport policy changes recommended by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) focus too much on better fuel and engine performance, and not enough on health impacts, claims the World Health Organisation (WHO).

“The IPCC is remiss in only focusing on climate change,” said Carlos Dora of WHO's Department of Public Health and Environment. He was speaking at the launch of the organisation's report, Health in the green economy, at the COP17 climate change conference in Durban yesterday.

“ 'Better' transport – better for climate and health, should focus on promoting a mix of high-quality rapid transit/public transport and active transport i.e. safe cycling and walking access in our cities,” said Dora.

Car culture - green or not - kills
Dora pointed out that although greener cars will reduce carbon, they'll do nothing for the huge health impact of private motorised transport: traffic injuries, air pollution, physical inactivity and noise stress.

Traffic injuries and urban air pollution (produced largely by motor vehicles) kill 2.6 million people globally per year. The physical inactivity associated with car culture accounts for 3.2 million deaths annually.

“The link between air pollution and heart and respiratory disease, obesity, diabetes and certain cancers (like lung and breast cancer) is well-established,” said Dora, “as is the link between car use and physical inactivity, which contributes to many of the same ills.”

“Many people in cities don't have time to exercise; incorporating walking and cycling to work helps greatly with this. The research shows that even public transport use is clearly associated with less immobility and disease.”

Combined active and public transport: bike and ride system in Portland, Oregon.
(Image: Olivia Rose-Innes)

Shift to diesel worsens worst pollution
Some of the IPCC's recommendations may even increase one serious kind of pollution, small particulates – tiny pollutant particles that get deep into the lungs and have the worst impact on health.

The IPCC's assessment finds that diesel vehicles have the potential to reduce CO2 emissions. But diesel engines typically produce more small particulates.

In Europe, large shifts to diesel vehicles over the last decade, even though using cleaner diesel technologies, was a likely reason that particulate pollution levels there have shown no signs of dropping, WHO research suggests.

Apartheid sprawl fuels transport woes
Jeremy Cronin, South Africa's Deputy Minister of Transport, concurred with Dora that transport was not sufficiently high on the agenda at COP17.

“The transport interventions are mainly focused on technological improvements, and fail to look at the social dimension on the local level. Most global deaths attributed to transport happen in the developing world, and most of all to the children of the poor and working classes.”

Cronin conceded that promoting active modes of transport was not easy, especially in South Africa where “transport problems are compounded by the legacy of the apartheid sprawling urban form.”

“The cities were meant for whites, with blacks living at a distance and only commuting in for work. The average bus commute for South Africans is 20-25km, whereas in a city like Bogota it's 7-8km.”

“We need to try to create areas that have more compact and mixed land use – work, residential and recreational – so people can access resources more easily nearby.” 

Oil price shocks, biofuel vs food, and old cars
WHO points out that improved active and public transport systems are not only healthy, but cost-effective too. They improve congestion and the need to fund costly road infrastructure, and are less vulnerable to price shocks and supply interruptions in oil or other fuels.

Another consideration is that biofuel production for transport climate change mitigation may pose a threat to food security if more resources are diverted to growing biofuel crops, reducing access to nutritious, affordable food.

Also, as developed countries shift to greener vehicles, older, more polluting vehicles are still being resold to developing countries. This can worsen these areas' pollution, congestion and injury risk, particularly where controls on fuels and vehicle maintenance are less strictly enforced, and public transport systems inefficient.

- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, Health24, December 2011

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