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Electric Cars Won’t Stop Air Pollution, Says UK Govt

Damaging levels of pollution will still be released into the atmosphere even if electric cars become widespread, a Government report has warned.

Brake, tyre and road surface wear all contribute to dangerous emissions – regardless of the type of vehicle used.

Plastic debris created from this wear and tear also contributes as much as 28 per cent of the total microplastics added to the ocean worldwide.

The Air Quality Expert Group’s Non-Exhaust Emissions from Road Traffic report said that the best way to reduce emissions is to lower the overall volume of traffic.

Other green ideas detailed in the report include lowering the motorway speed limits and creating emissions limits for brake pads and tyres.

The report notes that as exhaust pollutants have decreased thanks to regulations set by the EU, the proportion of non-exhaust emissions has increased.

It adds: ‘Non-exhaust particles from the UK road traffic fleet should be considered as potentially having a greater public health impact than the exhaust particles.’

Current estimates say that exposure to particulate air pollution contributes to around 29,000 deaths across the country every year.

Vehicles add particulates to the air by wearing down tyres, brakes and road surfaces.

Particulates added to the air from non-exhaust emissions include PM10, which are less than 10 micrometres in size, and PM2.5, which are less than 2.5 micrometres across.

Because of their tiny size, they can penetrate deep into the lungs and throat, causing health issues.

The rubber on tyres also adds to microplastic pollution as particles remain on the road until they are washed away by rainwater.

While the report, commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), does acknowledge electric cars can produce less emissions, it disagrees with the phrase ‘zero emission vehicle’.


Brake wear

Standard friction brakes force a brake pad against the rotating drum to stop the car. This process wears down the surfaces on both objects, releasing particles into the air.

Tyre wear

As the tyre comes into contact with the road it is steadily eroded, releasing rubber particles. Larger ones remain on the road until they are washed off, often into rivers or oceans. Smaller pieces will become airborne.

Road surface wear

The road’s surface is also impacted by cars driving on it, and particles are released into the air.

Resuspended road dust

Dusts from a number of sources, such as construction, settle on roads and are kicked up by cars passing by them, sending them airborne.

Even though electric cars do not produce exhaust emissions, they do create emissions ‘further up the energy-supply chain… depending on the source of the electricity’, it states.

Some electric cars use regenerative braking, which involves cutting power instead of friction brakes, meaning it does not generate significant particle numbers.

Plastic debris creation from tyre and break wear is estimated to be between 5 per cent to 28 per cent of the total microplastic release into the oceans worldwide.

The report warns: ‘These estimates make wear and tear from tyres at least as important as plastic bottles, bags and fibres released from clothing during washing.’

In the wake of the report, ministers have called for the development of new technology to tackle non-exhaust emissions.

Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey told the BBC: ‘The documents published today make clear that it is not just fumes from car exhaust pipes that have a detrimental impact on human health but also the tiny particles that are released from their brakes and tyres.

‘Emissions from car exhausts have been decreasing through development of cleaner technologies – and there is now a need for the car industry to find innovative ways to address the challenges of air pollution from other sources.’

The Government plans to ban the sale of all new diesel and petrol cars from 2040, but this report indicates more must be done to tackle non-exhaust emissions.

MPs on the climate change committee said earlier this year that electric cars will have an equivalent range and price as fossil fuel models by that date.

However, MPs warn that restrictions in obtaining the required natural resources for the batteries, mainly the element cobalt, means the 2030 may be missed.

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It is therefore expected to recommend 2035 as the latest possible date.

Issues with rolling out battery-powered cars, according to previous recommendations from the committee, focus on a lack of charging points.

Current targets in England mean internal combustion engines will still be n the road in 2050, producing large amounts of greenhouse gases.

By this point, according to government targets, the UK should be entirely carbon neutral.

Scotland has a different set of guidelines, indicating the switch-over and ban of petrol or diesel vehicles should happen by 2032.


The report, commissioned by Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland had a number of ideas for how to reduce pollution.

They were:

  • Reduce the overall volume of traffic, lower the speed where traffic is free-flowing, and promote driving behaviour that reduces braking and high-speed cornering
  • Establish particle mass and particle-associated metal emissions limits for brake pad and tyre technologies
  • Trap brake wear particles in the braking system before release into ambient air
  • Reduce the material that is tracked onto public road surfaces from construction sites



Carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the biggest contributors to global warming. After the gas is released into the atmosphere it stays there, making it difficult for heat to escape – and warming up the planet in the process.

It is primarily released from burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, as well as cement production.

The average monthly concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, as of April 2019, is 413 parts per million (ppm). Before the Industrial Revolution, the concentration was just 280 ppm.

CO2 concentration has fluctuated over the last 800,000 years between 180 to 280ppm, but has been vastly accelerated by pollution caused by humans.

Nitrogen dioxide 

The gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) comes from burning fossil fuels, car exhaust emissions and the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers used in agriculture.

Although there is far less NO2 in the atmosphere than CO2, it is between 200 and 300 times more effective at trapping heat.

Sulfur dioxide 

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) also primarily comes from fossil fuel burning, but can also be released from car exhausts.

SO2 can react with water, oxygen and other chemicals in the atmosphere to cause acid rain.

Carbon monoxide 

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an indirect greenhouse gas as it reacts with hydroxyl radicals, removing them. Hydroxyl radicals reduce the lifetime of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.


What is particulate matter?

Particulate matter refers to tiny parts of solids or liquid materials in the air.

Some are visible, such as dust, whereas others cannot be seen by the naked eye.

Materials such as metals, microplastics, soil and chemicals can be in particulate matter.

Particulate matter (or PM) is described in micrometres. The two main ones mentioned in reports and studies are PM10 (less than 10 micrometres) and PM2.5 (less than 2.5 micrometres).

Air pollution comes from burning fossil fuels, cars, cement making and agriculture

Scientists measure the rate of particulates in the air by cubic metre.

Particulate matter is sent into the air by a number of processes including burning fossil fuels, driving cars and steel making.

Why are particulates dangerous?

Particulates are dangerous because those less than 10 micrometres in diameter can get deep into your lungs, or even pass into your bloodstream. Particulates are found in higher concentrations in urban areas, particularly along main roads.

Health impact

What sort of health problems can pollution cause?

According to the World Health Organization, a third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease can be linked to air pollution.

Some of the effects of air pollution on the body are not understood, but pollution may increase inflammation which narrows the arteries leading to heart attacks or strokes.

As well as this, almost one in 10 lung cancer cases in the UK are caused by air pollution.

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Particulates find their way into the lungs and get lodged there, causing inflammation and damage. As well as this, some chemicals in particulates that make their way into the body can cause cancer.

Deaths from pollution 

Around seven million people die prematurely because of air pollution every year. Pollution can cause a number of issues including asthma attacks, strokes, various cancers and cardiovascular problems.

Asthma triggers

Air pollution can cause problems for asthma sufferers for a number of reasons. Pollutants in traffic fumes can irritate the airways, and particulates can get into your lungs and throat and make these areas inflamed.

Problems in pregnancy 

Women exposed to air pollution before getting pregnant are nearly 20 per cent more likely to have babies with birth defects, research suggested in January 2018.

Living within 3.1 miles (5km) of a highly-polluted area one month before conceiving makes women more likely to give birth to babies with defects such as cleft palates or lips, a study by University of Cincinnati found.

For every 0.01mg/m3 increase in fine air particles, birth defects rise by 19 per cent, the research adds.

Previous research suggests this causes birth defects as a result of women suffering inflammation and ‘internal stress’.

What is being done to tackle air pollution?

Paris agreement on climate change

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change.

It hopes to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C (3.6ºF) ‘and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F)’.

Carbon neutral by 2050

The UK government has announced plans to make the country carbon neutral by 2050.

They plan to do this by planting more trees and by installing ‘carbon capture’ technology at the source of the pollution.

Some critics are worried that this first option will be used by the government to export its carbon offsetting to other countries.

International carbon credits let nations continue emitting carbon while paying for trees to be planted elsewhere, balancing out their emissions.

No new petrol or diesel vehicles by 2040

In 2017, the UK government announced the sale of new petrol and diesel cars would be banned by 2040.

From around 2020, town halls will be allowed to levy extra charges on diesel drivers using the UK’s 81 most polluted routes if air quality fails to improve.

However,  MPs on the climate change committee have urged the government to bring the ban forward to 2030, as by then they will have an equivalent range and price.

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. Pictured: air pollution over Paris in 2019.

Norway’s electric car subsidies

The speedy electrification of Norway’s automotive fleet is attributed mainly to generous state subsidies. Electric cars are almost entirely exempt from the heavy taxes imposed on petrol and diesel cars, which makes them competitively priced.

A VW Golf with a standard combustion engine costs nearly 334,000 kroner (34,500 euros, $38,600), while its electric cousin the e-Golf costs 326,000 kroner thanks to a lower tax quotient. 

Criticisms of inaction on climate change

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has said there is a ‘shocking’ lack of Government preparation for the risks to the country from climate change.

The committee assessed 33 areas where the risks of climate change had to be addressed – from flood resilience of properties to impacts on farmland and supply chains – and found no real progress in any of them.

The UK is not prepared for 2°C of warming, the level at which countries have pledged to curb temperature rises, let alone a 4°C rise, which is possible if greenhouse gases are not cut globally, the committee said.

It added that cities need more green spaces to stop the urban ‘heat island’ effect, and to prevent floods by soaking up heavy rainfall. 

Source: Dailymail

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