Our transportation choices impact the environment. Personal vehicles (e.g. cars, pickup trucks, minivans, and sport utility vehicles) are a major contributor to climate change and impact air quality.
While driving a car is a necessity for most people, there are things you can do to reduce pollution from your car.
The most effective way to reduce your car pollution is to switch to a clean vehicle (e.g. electric car) but there are several things you can do to drive smarter that will also make a big difference.
Environmental Impacts of Cars
In the United States, there are over 284 million cars on the road. The burning of gasoline and diesel fuels emits various air pollutants and greenhouse gases, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter (PM), carbon monoxide (CO) and sulfur oxides (SOx). These pollutants are harmful to our health, pollute the air we breathe and contain greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.
A typical personal vehicle emits about 4.6 tons of carbon dioxide per year. Carbon dioxide is emitted when fuel is burned. It is the most common greenhouse gas generated from human activities. In 2019, carbon dioxide accounted for approximately 80% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, as much as 95% of all CO emissions in cities are coming from personal vehicles.
Car pollution is a major contributor to smog. Smog is air pollution that reduces visibility and is often described as a mix between smoke and fog. In the early 1990s, when the term was created, it was referring to the smoke that was coming from factories burning coal.
Smog and air pollutants emitted from cars have been linked to several negative health effects, including cancer, asthma, heart disease, lung function, birth defects and eye, nose and/or throat irritation.
17 Ways You Can Do to Reduce Car Pollution
Reducing car pollution and emissions benefit human health, air quality, and the environment. Adapting your driving habits and making minor changes can also help improve the performance and lifespan of your vehicle.
1. Switch to an Electric Car
An electric car has an electric motor instead of an internal combustion engine. It does not run on gasoline or diesel. Instead, it runs on electricity, which means the vehicle does not emit exhaust from a tailpipe and does not contain liquid fuel components that generate greenhouse gas emissions. Electric cars do not emit air pollutants.
In 2019, lifecycle electric vehicle emissions were around 3x lower than a conventional car and emissions are expected to continue decreasing over time as electricity gets cleaner over time.
2. Carpool or Take Public Transit
Depending on where you live, public transit may not be an option for you. However, carpooling is a great alternative that is equally effective. Some cities even have designated high occupancy lanes on major highways. Carpoolers reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with their commute by approximately 5%.
Public transportation uses less energy and produces less pollution than comparable travel in personal vehicles, regardless of whether you are carpooling or not. Taking public transportation for a 30-minute morning commute could eliminate 10% of your household greenhouse gas emissions.
Carpooling and/or using public transit at least three times a week can reduce your fuel consumption by over 50%. It is pretty simple, fewer cars on the road equate to fewer emissions being released.
3. Bike or Walk
When you own a car, you often don’t think about taking alternative modes of transportation, such as walking or biking. Walking or biking are great alternatives when traveling somewhere nearby. These sustainable transportation options also provide opportunities for physical activity that improve your physical and mental health. For example, for every mile you walk, you burn an average of 100 calories.
Every gallon of gasoline saved from not taking your car prevents 22 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. It is estimated that choosing a bike over a car just once per day can reduce your carbon footprint associated with transportation by 67%.
4. Live Close to Where You Work
One way to avoid rush hour traffic or a long commute is to live close to where you work. This is ideal for several reasons as it will save you money on fuel and will reduce your fuel consumption and car pollution.
5. Join a Car Share Program
Car share programs allow people to rent cars for short periods of time, often by the hour. This gives people the flexibility of having access to a car without actually owning a car. These programs are becoming more and more popular in major cities, with some condo buildings having car share programs.
A person taking part in a car share program experiences an annual emissions reduction of approximately 70% compared to someone who owns a car.
6. Purchase a New Vehicle
An older car will, in most cases, be less efficient than a newer car. When shopping for a new vehicle, it is important to investigate the fuel efficiency of the vehicle. The best option would be to opt for a vehicle that is less reliant or non-reliant on gasoline or diesel (e.g. hybrid or electric vehicles). While this is the ideal, hybrid and electric cars remain at a higher price point.
Hybrid electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, and all-electric vehicles typically produce lower tailpipe emissions than conventional gasoline vehicles. All-electric vehicles produce no tailpipe emissions and hybrid vehicles only produce tailpipe emissions when gasoline is being used as a fuel source.
Driving the most fuel-efficient vehicle within your price range that meets your needs is a great way to reduce car pollution.
7. Drive at a Steady Speed
Maintaining a consistent speed while driving uses far less fuel than continuously accelerating and breaking. For example, fluctuating your speed between 75 and 85 km per hour every 18 seconds can increase your fuel consumption by over 20%.
The constant braking and acceleration associated with speed fluctuation forces your car to work harder and consume more fuel than if it was cruising at a constant speed.
While it is not always possible to drive at a steady speed, especially in the cities, it is best practice. If you are driving on a highway and conditions allow, cruise control is a great fuel-efficient option.
8. Avoid Speeding
The speed that you drive can drastically influence your fuel consumption and the amount of pollution your car releases. Reducing your cruising speed by 10 km/hour can improve your fuel consumption by 10-15%. The most efficient speed or “sweet spot” for most cars is between 30 mph (50 km/h) and 50 mph (80 km/h).
Reducing your speed and driving the speed limit can reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions, including nitrogen oxides and particulate matter.
9. Avoid Idling
Idling occurs when a vehicle is left running unnecessarily while stopped or parked. This is often associated with activities, such as a drive-through, waiting to pick someone up, or being stuck in traffic. Idling wastes fuel releases unnecessary carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases, and affects the environment.
The general rule of thumb in the United States is that if you’re going to be stopped for over 30 seconds, it is more efficient to turn off your engine.
In other countries, this recommendation varies, for example in Italy and France it is 10 seconds, in Austria, it is 20 seconds, in Germany it is 40 seconds and in the Netherlands, it is 60 seconds. The one exception to this rule is during the winter months when you need to idle to defrost or defog your windshield.
Remember that idling doesn’t get you anywhere, but it does waste fuel and generates emissions. Avoiding unnecessary idling is an easy way to reduce car pollution.
10. Perform Regular Maintenance
It is important to properly maintain your car to ensure that it is running as efficiently as possible. A poorly maintained engine can use up to 50% more fuel and produce up to 50% more emissions than one that is running properly and regularly maintained.
If you have clogged air filters, a dirty carburetor, or worn-out engine parts, your car has to work harder, which increases your fuel consumption and the number of emissions emitted. If your check engine light appears on your dashboard, you should take your vehicle to a technician right away because it means something is not operating correctly.
11. Change Your Engine Oil Regularly
Regular oil changes are a key aspect of ensuring your car is performing at peak efficiency. A clean and smooth engine will release less exhaust than a dirty engine. Clean engine oil can better absorb harmful engine particles as well as engine by-product emissions.
While it may seem like just another responsibility associated with owning a car, regular oil changes reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
12. Keep Your Tires Properly Inflated
Keeping your tires properly inflated will lower your fuel consumption and provide a smoother drive. Under-inflated tires can cause fuel consumption to increase by as much as 6%. Keeping your tires properly inflated can result in inefficiency that could save nearly 800,000 barrels of oil a day.
It is considered best practice to check tire pressure at least once a month using a tire gauge. You can find the correct tire pressure for your vehicle in the owner’s manual.
13. Reduce Air Conditioner Usage
Using the air conditioner in your car increases your fuel consumption because of the extra load on the engine. Rolling down your windows and not using your air conditioner can reduce fuel consumption by as much as 20%.
You can also reduce your air conditioner usage by using the flow-through ventilation when you’re on the highway, using the re-circulate function on your system, and by parking your car in a shaded area. The goal is to reduce the demand for your air conditioner system and to use it as efficiently as possible when it is necessary.
14. Turn Off Your Engine at a Red Light
Turning off the car at a red light saves fuel and eliminates idle emissions, especially if the wait time is long. The general rule of thumb is to only turn off your car if it will be idle for over 10 seconds.
It may not always be working to turn off your car at a red light, but if you are familiar with an intersection and know it will be a long wait, it will be worth your while. Vehicles at traffic lights are idling, which means they are essentially wasting fuel and generating harmful emissions.
15. Break Early
A hard break can actually increase fuel consumption by as much as 40%. Your car’s fuel consumption and your vehicle should come to a steady gradual stop rather than a hard stop. Removing your foot from the gas and letting your car cruise before coming to a complete stop will allow you to cover more distance on less fuel. This approach also saves wear and tear on your brakes.
16. Reduce the Overall Weight of Your Car
The heavier a car is, the harder it needs to work and the more energy it needs to expend to get moving. Every reduction in weight by 45kg improves efficiency by 1%-2%. Try to avoid driving around with extra unnecessary weight in your car.
17. Avoid Rush Hour Traffic
Most cities experience rush hour traffic during the morning and evening commute. This results in idling and constant braking and acceleration, which means a lot of emissions are released without the car actually moving.
The constant stop and go also results in your vehicle releasing more emissions than normal because it is constantly working. If possible, try to adjust your work hours to avoid rush hour traffic, or check google maps before you leave the house to avoid traffic.
Final Thoughts on Car Pollution
What we drive and how we drive have a tremendous impact on the environment. Reducing car pollution is as easy as changing your driving habits and behaviors or as big as upgrading to an electric car. It is important to be mindful of your car pollution and to find ways to lessen your impact on the environment whenever possible.
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