It is no secret that many diesel cars and trucks emit more pollution under real-world driving conditions than during laboratory certification testing. Many lab tests, for instance, are run with perfectly maintained vehicles on flat surfaces in ideal conditions. In the real world, drivers chug up hills or sit in traffic in bad weather in vehicles well past their prime.
Until this month, nobody had tallied the health effects of all the excess diesel air pollution entering the atmosphere through real-world driving conditions. According to a new study published in Nature, vehicles in eleven major markets (Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Europe, India, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Korea, and the United States) emitted about 4.6 million more tons of nitrogen oxides (NOx) in 2015 than official laboratory tests suggested they would. NOx contributes to the accumulation of both ground-level ozone (O3) and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in the atmosphere.
According to the research team, nearly one-third of heavy-duty diesel vehicle emissions and over half of light-duty diesel vehicle emissions are above the certification limits. On average, light-duty diesel vehicles produce 2.3 times more NOx than the limit; heavy-duty diesel vehicles emit more than 1.45 times the limit.
The authors of the study calculated the health effects for current and future levels of this excess diesel NOx by running a global atmospheric chemistry model that simulates the distribution of PM2.5 and O3. The bottom line: excess NOx caused 38,000 premature deaths in 2015. It could cause as many as 183,600 premature deaths by 2040 as the use of diesel increases.
China suffered the largest health burden from diesel NOx emissions—31,400 deaths, of which 10,700 are attributed to excess NOx—followed by the European Union (28,500 total; 11,500 excess) and India (26,700 total; 9,400 excess).
Light-duty diesel vehicles in the European Union accounted for 6 out of every 10 deaths related to excess diesel NOx.
In the United States, heavy-duty diesel vehicles caused 10 times the impact of light-duty diesel cars.
This map, based on previous research, shows a model estimate of the average number of deaths per 1,000 square kilometers (386 square miles) per year due to fine particulate matter (PM2.5), a type of outdoor air pollution. Pollution from diesel exhaust is one contributer to PM2.5. Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon based on data provided by Jason West. Learn more about this map here.
Haze over northeastern China on January 14, 2013. Image by NASA Earth Observatory, using data Terra MODIS data from LANCE MODIS Rapid Response.
In the winter of 2013, thick haze enveloped northern China for several weeks. On January 12, 2013, the peak of that bad-air episode, the air quality index (AQI) rose to a staggering 775—off the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scale—according to a U.S. air quality sensor in Beijing.
Extra pollution from cars, homes, and factories in the winter often sets the stage for outbreaks of air pollution in China. But a March 2017 study in Science Advances suggests that a loss of Arctic sea ice in 2012 and increased Eurasian snowfall the winter before may have helped fuel the extreme event.
Snow and ice cover can affect weather patterns because both affect albedo, a measure of how much solar radiation the surface reflects in comparison to how much incoming solar radiation it receives. In September 2012, sea ice covered less area than at any other time since 1979. Meanwhile, Eurasia had unusually high snow cover in December 2012, the second most on a record that dates back to 1967.
Normally, winds blow air pollution away from eastern China, which is home to Beijing and several other large cities. But in January 2013, winds died down to a whisper and air pollution piled up. By analyzing decades of data collected by ground-based weather stations, 15 years of satellite data on aerosols, and computer simulations of the atmosphere, the researchers concluded that unusual sea ice and snow conditions triggered a shift in China’s winter monsoon, stilling the winds that normally ventilate Beijing.
A press release from Georgia Tech explained the connection in more detail:
“The reductions in sea ice and increases in snowfall have the effect of damping the climatological pressure ridge structure over China,” explained Yuhang Wang. “That flattens the temperature and pressure gradients and moves the East Asian Winter Monsoon to the east, decreasing wind speeds and creating an atmospheric circulation that makes the air in China more stagnant.”
If correct, this might explain why efforts to reduce air pollution in recent years have not stopped extreme haze events from happening. “Emissions in China have been decreasing over the last four years, but the severe winter haze is not getting better,” said Wang. “Mostly, that’s because of a very rapid change in the high polar regions.”
This is not the first study that connects changes in the Arctic to severe haze in China. Research published in August 2015 in Atmospheric Oceanic Science Letters argued that a decline in Arctic sea ice intensifies haze in eastern China. And a study published in Nature Climate Change in April 2017 came to a similar conclusion. The latter study projected a 50 percent increase in the frequency of extreme haze events and an 80 percent increase in their persistence in the near future.
In 2012, Arctic sea ice extent was unusually low in September. New research suggests that may have contributed to a bad haze outbreak in eastern China the next winter. (NASA Earth Observatory graph by Joshua Stevens, based on data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center.)