Driving and air pollution

Do New Zealand cities and towns have a problem with toxic air pollution from vehicles? If you've travelled in the Northern Hemisphere in particular, the answer will have been a lot clearer than the air: not in comparison with them. Even though air quality problems in New Zealand may be less obvious, in some parts of New Zealand on very still days air pollution can build up to levels above international health standards. All motor vehicles release pollutants into the air, mostly through the exhaust fumes that come out of the tailpipe when the engine operates.

Main sources of air pollution

In most New Zealand towns and cities home heating using wood and coal burners is the main cause of air pollution, especially during winter. But in Auckland, vehicle emissions are an equal contributor to poor air quality. In smaller centres, vehicle emissions add slightly to the pollution from other sources.

In other countries the main air pollutant gases are ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbon vapours. These gases are not particularly significant in New Zealand. The main pollutant that reaches dangerous concentrations in New Zealand is small soot particles that can enter and damage the lungs.

Around 90% of this pollutant comes from diesel vehicles. However, some diesels are worse than others - heavy commercial transport such as trucks and older buses burn fuel less efficiently and produce more emissions than cars. New vehicles generally emit less pollution than older vehicles and well maintained vehicles emit less pollution.

Vehicles are getting cleaner and greener

Efforts to reduce vehicle air pollution are ongoing. The OECD report "Can Cars Come Clean" suggests that by 2014 most new vehicles will be classed as "low" or "no" emission vehicles.  New Zealand's vehicle fleet has an average age of 11 years and the average age of our used imports is around 7 years, so if nothing were done it would take a long time before we have a "clean" fleet on our roads.

The government's recent initiatives include a visible smoke check as part of the Warrant of Fitness test, emission standards for vehicles entering the New Zealand fleet, improved fuel quality, and a biofuels sales obligation for petrol companies.

AA speaking up for motorists

Motorists have their part to play in reducing air pollution, but this should be in proportion to the problems actually associated with car use. Heavy commercial diesel vehicles can be many times more polluting than an ordinary car, so priority needs to be given to the worst offenders - particularly older trucks, buses, and other older diesel vehicles.

Did you know?

By 2014 it is likely that most new vehicles overseas will be classed as "low" or "no" emission vehicles.

Practical measures to reduce vehicle emissions

The AA supports practical and economically feasible measures to conserve energy and reduce emissions, including:

  • Warrant of Fitness smoky vehicle checks
  • Testing the emissions of used imported cars before their arrival in New Zealand
  • Over time, reduce the age of the New Zealand vehicle fleet, which will deliver better emission standards and safety benefits
  • Schemes to help remove old (end of life) vehicles from the roads, including scrappage and recycling
  • Improvements to fuel quality
  • Initiatives that achieve or encourage greater fuel efficiency, for example the AA EnergyWise Rally
  • Clean alternative fuels
  • Investment in roading and transport solutions that reduce congestion, as vehicles emit up to double the emissions when slowed or stopped in traffic
  • Investment in public transport to provide an alternative to car use if it represents value for money and delivers services that people will actually use

AA tips for motorists

Tips on how to reduce your emissions and save money:

  • Service your car regularly (every 6-12 months)
  • Change diesel filters every 3-6 months or 5,000 km
  • Don't remove catalytic converters
  • Ensure tyres are correctly inflated
  • Use the safest and most fuel efficient car for your needs
  • Adopt a fuel efficient driving style, for example accelerating smoothly and not speeding
  • Drive to the conditions and within the speed limit
  • Consider substituting some trips with walking or cycling
  • Use public transport for some trips if this is convenient for you

What AA Members are saying

AA Members have strong concern for the environment - but equally very little support for measures that either reduce roading investment or increase car running costs in a March 2007 Survey.

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