A group of Australian doctors is pushing for reform to vehicle emissions controls and support for greater uptake of electric vehicles following the release of a World Health Organisation Report that highlighted the stunning and terrible impacts of air pollution, particularly on children.
Nearly one in ten children are dying from exposure to air pollution, the WHO report states, with 98 per cent of tsubject to health risks due to ambient fine particulate matter (PM2.5) levels exceeding WHO air quality guidelines.
The health risks include damage to lung function, higher rates of respiratory problems – and for 10 per cent of children under the age of 5, death.
While the source of this in developing countries is largely cooking sources, the report also recognises the role of pollution produced outside the home, such as by dirty transport and factories.
Dr Graeme McLeay, member of Doctors for the Environment, says that dirty transport accounts for roughly half of fine particulate pollution in Australia, and points to a report that shows children – who have smaller airways, are closer to the ground where pollution is thicker and are generally outside more – are particularly vulnerable.
“People think that air pollution is only a problem for India and China, but that’s quite wrong, because we have significant pollution levels,” McLeay told The Driven.
“It’s a growing problem in our cities, it comes from transport, and also comes from coal, and depending on how the wind blows, Sydney can experience significant pollution from coal-fired power stations in NSW.”
While countries and cities around the world are responding to air pollution issues with policies designed to reduce particulate pollution – such as in Madrid where ICE cars have just been banned from the Spanish capital’s inner city streets – Australian policy makers have to date done very little to improve things here at home.
A ministerial forum on electric vehicles in 2015 has so far lead to “zero action”, says McLeay, adding that diesel cars and heavy transport are the big contributors of particulate pollution, and oxides of nitrogen which break down in sunlight and in heat to produce health-damaging ground-level ozone.
“We are still importing cars that would not be accepted on the European market,” he says.
The position of Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) is that something must be done, and soon.
“What the DEA wants is tighter emissions controls, more cars off road by improving public transport, we want to encourage ridesharing…we want to get people walking more and using public transport more and cycling more – all these things are good for your health,” says McLeay.
The DEA also wants to encourage the uptake of electric vehicles – in particular, electric buses.
“We definitely should be subsidising electric vehicles in some way,” says McLeay.
“With more EVs on road, particularly electric buses, the less urban pollution we’ll have the less in health costs, loss of work days and so on.”
The benefits for children are massive, with the Californian Childrens’ Health report showing that children living close to transport corridors with high levels of traffic pollution have more absence from schools days, a higher incidence of asthma and diminished lung capacity going into adulthood.
The WHO report, while calling for schools and playground to be located away from busy roads, also says that, “governments should adopt such measures as reducing the over-dependence on fossil fuels in the global energy mix”.
Regarding claims that more electric vehicles on the road will in fact create more coal-generated emissions – both CO2 and particulate – McLeay says that argument doesn’t play out:
“Because they are highly efficient compared to an ICE, much more efficient, even when charged off a largely coal-fired grid, they still cause less pollution overall,” he says.
Bridie Schmidt is lead reporter for The Driven, sister site of Renew Economy. She has been writing about electric vehicles since 2018, and has a keen interest in the role that zero-emissions transport has to play in sustainability. She has participated in podcasts such as Download This Show with Marc Fennell and Shirtloads of Science with Karl Kruszelnicki and is co-organiser of the Northern Rivers Electric Vehicle Forum. Bridie also owns a Tesla Model 3 and has it available for hire on evee.com.au.