Car Sick

Last week BBC Scotland showed a half hour programme introduced by David Miller called Car Sick. It looked at how, despite the rhetoric on climate change and sustainable living, people in Scotland are relying on the car more than ever.

Yet Scotland, like the rest of the UK, is increasing its spending on road transport. The largest road building programme since the 1970’s is underway across the UK, whilst public transport faces huge cuts. There is however no evidence that this money will improve our lives. In fact the evidence suggests it will do the opposite whilst costing us a lot more.

Air pollution is only one of five main categories through which we pay for road transport

Car Sick highlighted Air Pollution from exhausts and the cost to the health services from inactivity (£600 million in Scotland) as the main impacts of our car addiction. Using data from TRACCSEMEP/EEA and a report by Ricardo-AEA, Wattsthecost estimates exhaust air pollution from road transport costs the UK £1.5 billion per year and Non-exhaust emissions around £1 billion (figure 1). The RAC and Defra put these costs at between £4.5 and 10.6 billion. Yet Air Pollution is only one of five main categories through which we pay for road transport, not including climate change.

Breakdown of pollution costs in the UK
Figure 1 – Breakdown of air pollution costs in the UK

Figure 2 below shows estimates for external costs of congestionaccidentsinfrastructure and noise from different vehicles. These figures are huge underestimates when compared to the UK governments own statistics, which put the annual accident cost at £16.3 billion – 11% higher than the previous year and noise at up to £10 billion. Whilst these figures are varied and estimated, there is no doubt there are a huge range of hidden costs that we fork out for every day, simply because there is no convenient alternative.

TRACCS estimates car owners in the UK are paying an average of £2300 a year to run a car. The Wattsthecost external cost estimations shown above amounts to each person paying £4000 a year of our taxes essentially subsidising the problems they cause. The average income tax contributions are a little over this at £5000. People Baulk at the cost of annual travel cards in London, which in 2016 range from £972 to just over £4000. Yet London is one of the few cities in the UK with reliable public transport alternatives. In most, an amount equivalent to the upper fare range is coming out of the governments, businesses and our own pockets in funding lower property prices, increased hospital admissions and time lost in gridlock, because driving is seen as the only option.

Car Sick interviewed Klaus Bondam, mayor of Copenhagen from 2006 to 2010 (who in 2012 featured in the short film Brussels Express, discussing Europe’ then most congested city: Brussels (knocked off the top in 2014 by London)). He highlights that Copenhagen cannot afford not to invest in public transport and cycling, and points out one of main factors in Copenhagen’s rejection of the car is the absence of a Danish car industry and the powerful lobbying forces that entails.

Having spent 5 years living in Vienna, I can also attest to the benefits of living without a car. Despite paying around double the income tax I would on the same income in the UK, an annual transport pass costs a measly €366 a year (€365 for the bus, underground, overground train and tram network and €1 for the comprehensive city bike scheme). This enabled me to easily travel to and from work, home from a night out, to the shops and to training in the evening. The city authorities no doubt have a huge subsidy bill, but businesses who need the roads can do their jobs efficiently, the road repair bill is lower with fewer cars fatiguing the surfaces meaning less tarmac going to landfill and overall less casualties to deal with.

In Scotland and the rest of the UK we are essentially all paying a fortune to trip over parked cars, listen to incessant traffic noise, worry if our car has been broken into, if the meter has run out or when the next massive repair bill will be due and waste hours of our week sitting in traffic and driving around finding parking spaces, but are absolutely adamant that this is the best and only option.

External transport
Figure 2 – Cost estimates for Congestion, Accidents, Infrastructure and Noise taken from INRIX, TRACCS, EMEP and Ricardo-AEA.

Non-Exhaust Emissions

The health effects of particulate matter have become increasingly recognised. Headlines last summer over diesel manufacturers emission fraud have led us to believe that exhaust emissions are the main problem. Yet non-exhaust emissions actually contribute just as much if not more to the problem than the much talked about vehicle emissions.  The figure below shows the estimated annual emissions of PM10 and PM2.5 from exhaust (E) and non-exhaust (NE) from a 1km radius in central Bristol.

Non-exhaust emissions are composed of dust from road abrasion, tyre, brake and engine wear. Using data from the European Environment Agencythe handbook of external costs of transport and transport data from 2010wattsthecost estimate non exhaust PM2.5 and PM10 cost the UK nearly £1bn in health effects.

A recent report questions the safety of artificial football pitches made from old car tyres. It highlights the potentially lethal hidden compounds in “rubber” tyres. Figure 2 shows the elements contained in their dust. Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead and even gold are included. This combined with brake, engine and road surface wear creates a cocktail of particles, which not only do we all inhale but also contaminates the land.

The vast Autumn crop of leaves that falls around the country has a “contaminated waste” classification from the environment agency. Instead of being sent to the nearest anaerobic digester to generate heat and electricity, the tax payer has to pay for them to be sent to landfill where they slowly turn into Methane, a Greenhouse gas 84 times more warming than CO2.

So, what can we do about this? The simple solution is to use lighter, smaller vehicles. A bicycle also has tyres and brakes made of the same materials as that on cars, but the forces involved are a fraction of that in a car and negligible compared with a HGV or Bus, so far less material is worn and re-suspended from the road.

A ban on older Vespa Mopeds in the Italian City of Genoa that don’t meet modern emissions regulations has recently made the headlines. However the Italians, whilst known for their love of the petrol engine, are far more sensible with their private transport choices, opting for smaller vehicles.

Why is it we don’t all pedal round 5 seater cars? Because the energy to shift 1000kg to work and back is phenomenally greater than to move 20kg. So why are we using fossil fuels to do the same?

Next week wattsthecosts takes a closer look at vehicle efficiency and weight.


Vehicle Weight

This week Parkrun was in the headlines as a local council decided it should contribute to the upkeep of the paths it was held on.  The council cites £60,000 it has to spend in park path maintenance as the reasons behind the change in stance.
If councils want to save money on infrastructure, cracking down on people running around parks isn’t the first place they should start.
In the south west it is estimated it would cost £1.1 billion to get roads back into an acceptable condition. The UK as a whole spends over £4 billion on road infrastructure damage, more than three quarters of which is from the damage caused by passenger cars and HGVs (figure 1, taken from

Roads are often perceived as the cheaper more flexible option, aside from their “carbon emissions”, but when it comes to the environment there is more than just exhaust emissions to consider. As discussed in wattsthecost’s previous blog, the majority of particulate matter emissions from road transport are from non-exhaust emissions, of which dust from road abrasion is a significant contributor.

When a road wears down, cracks up and can no longer be patched, it goes to landfill. Some reuse options are available, but like car tyres the product deteriorates after each cycle.

A few weeks ago it was reported that autonomous trucks will be trialled on the M6 as part of a drive to “cut traffic congestion”. This seemingly highly sophisticated technology is similar to a 19th century British Invention: the train.

But even in the 1800’s train/tram technology was far superior to these autonomous trucks. In 1885 Frank Sprague invented the regenerative electric motor, made famous with its introduction to Formula 1 more than 100 years later in 2009. Coupled with solid steel wheels on hard tracks, Sprague’s trams used comparatively tiny amounts of energy.

In addition to energy savings, Kintetic energy recovery (KER) using electric motors means we don’t have to use friction to brake at all, eliminating the dust and metal waste produced by disc brakes. Trains and trams run on solid steel wheels, producing a fraction of the dust of a soft car/bus tyre and these wheels and tracks can be melted down and completely re-used once their life is over.

Despite the efficiency of vehicles improving by around 20% since 2005 a car still only converts around 17 – 21% of the energy in the oil into motion. Compared with an electric motor which can convert upwards of 90%.

The association of American rail roads estimates a train can, on average, move 1 ton of freight 479 miles on 1 gallon (4.54 litres) of fuel. Using trains cargos far heavier and of similar sizes to trucks regularly reaching over 2km, in some cases 6.5km in length can be transported with only one driver.  No autonomous technology is needed, although in recent decades modern electronics have made rail travel one of the safest methods we have for moving people and goods around. In the UK trucks, buses and coaches are responsible for 1 in 5 road deaths despite making up only 1 in 50 vehicles on the road.

Up until the second world war Bristol had a tram network that would rival any modern continental city. However the main supply cables were destroyed by a Luftwaffe bomb and like most UK cities it embraced the motorcar.

Despite the huge potential energy and air quality improvements coupled with the associated cost savings to the public, Bristol city council considers trams too expensive. Instead Metrobus, a dedicated route for a low efficiency combustion powered bus is perceived as the cheap option, simply because less upfront physical infrastructure has to be installed.

Britain is one of the few countries in Europe to have double decker buses in city centres. This is because we use them as our primary public transport mode, when other major cities use rail, and it is costing us a fortune.


Noise is something we deal with and accept as part of everyday life. But do we really appreciate the impact it has on our life?
Here are some of the negative impacts noise can have (EEA, 2014b):

  • Sleep disturbance
  • Cardiovascular and physiological effects
  • Mental health effects
  • Annoyance
  • Cognitive impairment, particularly in children
  • Impacts on wildlife
  • Economic impacts

Road traffic is the most dominant source of environmental noise, affecting an estimated 125 million people (>55 decibels (dB) Lden, contributing to at least 10,000 premature deaths, over 900,000 cases of hypertension and 43,000 hospital admissions in Europe every year (EEA 2014b).

In 1996 the EC presented its “Green paper on future noise policy” (EC 1996). This estimated that due to external costs such as reduced house prices and possibilities of land use, increased medical costs and loss of productivity in the workplace, noise was having a negative impact ranging from €13 million to €30 billion on the EU economy.  The World Health Organisation has identified it as the second largest environmental health risk in Western Europe (WHO 2011).
In the UK the government estimates the cost of urban road noise is £7 to 10 billion. Similar to the cost of road accidents (£9 billion) (Defra 2014).
In Sweden the social cost of road noise was put at SEK16 billion, rail SEK 908 million and aircraft noise SEK 62 million (EEAb 2014).

Below are the external costs of different modes of transport during the day and night in Urban, Suburban and rural areas, calculated using a combination of EEA external cost estimates combined with TRACCS road usage data.

Click here for Defras transport noise modeling tool.


Infrastructure external costs reflect the damage to the road which heavy vehicles inflict. These effects can differ by country type, road type and vehicle class.

Chart showing the contribution per vehicle type to total marginal infrastructure costs in Austria using traffic data from 2010 and cost data from 2014.

Road Accidents

How do Road Accidents cost us money?

  • Lost Output – Loss of productivity capacity of an individual as a result of an injury or fatality.
  • Medical and Ambulance – cost of medical facilities and personnel.
  • Human – pain and distress felt by the accident victims and relatives. Costs based on peoples Willingness to Pay (WTP) for reductions in risk of occurrence.
  • Police – time spent attending and reporting accidents by police officers.
  • Insurance and administrative – based on the average time spent processing insurance claims, plus overheads and expenses.
  • Damage to property – this includes damage to vehicles and other third party property.

Source: A valuation of road accidents and casualties in Great Britain: Methodology note by the Department for Transport

Global burden of road traffic accidents

  • Nearly 1.3 million people die in road crashes each year, on average 3,287 deaths a day.
  • An additional 20-50 million are injured or disabled.
  • More than half of all road traffic deaths occur among young adults ages 15-44.
  • Road traffic crashes rank as the 9th leading cause of death and account for 2.2% of all deaths globally.
  • Road crashes are the leading cause of death among young people ages 15-29, and the second leading cause of death worldwide among young people ages 5-14.
  • Each year nearly 400,000 people under 25 die on the world’s roads, on average over 1,000 a day.
  • Road crashes cost USD $518 billion globally, costing individual countries from 1-2% of their annual GDP.
  • Road crashes cost low and middle-income countries USD $65 billion annually, exceeding the total amount received in developmental assistance.
  • Unless action is taken, road traffic injuries are predicted to become the fifth leading cause of death by 2030

Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel (2015)

Table below: Marginal accident cost estimates, €ct/vkm (based on 2010 prices)
Taken from Table 12 of Update of the Handbook on External Costs of Transport, Ricardo-AEA, 2014

Accident Costs

Wind Lifecycle Costs

Estimated lifecycle emissions of wind energy are put at 34.1 gCO2e/kWh (Nugent and Sovacool, 2014).

Resource inputs and technology

Lifecycle CO2e emissions are significantly higher for geared onshore turbines than for gearless and offshore counterparts. Turbines with gearboxes require significantly more stainless steel and reinforced concrete than lighter synchronous models. Despite increased materials to reach the seabed and larger nature of offshore turbines, their emissions intensity is found to be lower. (Nugent and Sovacool, 2014).


An average wind speed of 7.5 m/s compared to 8.5 m/s is estimated to have a 4 gCO2e/kWh lifecycle emissions difference. Clearly not the most important factor when compared with sizing and longevity (Nugent and Sovacool, 2014).


The lifecycle emissions trend with respect to turbine life is approximately 40 gCO2e/kWH for a 20 year lifespan, 28.53 gCO2e/kWh for 25 years and 25.33 for 30 years (Nugent and Sovacool, 2014). It is important that any such figure accounts for the increase frequency of maintenance and grid curtailment of the turbine as its lifetime.
A recent study of UK wind farms found that the output decreased by 1.6% +/- 0.2% for every year of operation, meaning they could operate for up to 25 years and possibly beyond for modern machines (Staffell and Green, 2014).


Some studies have estimated transportation to be as high as 28% of the total lifecycle emissions of wind energy (Nugent and Sovacool, 2014). Very often getting the large components to site can be difficult – in some cases requiring helicopters to lift kit. However in the offshore industry manufacturing locations are increasingly being sited next to the coast enabling the large components to be taken straight to site.


As with PV and other renewable technologies that rely on hardware, the biggest factor in manufacturing emissions is the energy mix used. When it is a renewable energy mix, the emissions are very small. Using a Brazilian electricity mix (eight times lower than the global average at 64gCO2/kWh) gives manufacturing emissions of 7.1 gCO2e/kWh and using 566gCO2e/kWh gives 9-11 gCO2e/kWh (Nugent and Sovacool, 2014).

Sizing and Capacity

The laws of physics dictate that larger rotor diameters and taller hub heights (generally meaning higher wind speeds) will give exponentially higher power outputs than their smaller counterparts.

P = 1/2 ρ E A v3
P = power (W)
ρ = density of air (kg/m3)
E = efficiency of the turbine (e.g. 20% is 0.2)

A = area wind passing through perpendicular to the wind (m2)
v = wind velocity (m/s)

Studies have found that 20 x 5kW turbines have lifecycle emissions of 42.7 gCO2e/kWh, 5 x 20kW 25.1gCO2e/kWh and a 100kW 17.8gCO2e/kWh.

The current record for size is the 8MW Vesta V164 turbine installed off the Danish coast, generating 192,000 kWh in a 24 period (Vestas, 2014).

Click here for a map of some of the largest wind installations in the world.

And information on how wind energy is forecast

PV Lifecycle Costs

Photovoltaic (PV) emissions are often considered as some of the highest amongst renewable energy systems. This is due to the high levels of energy required for silicon processing in older technologies. Manufacturing techniques have dramatically improved over the years to reduce the energy required and new technologies such as thin film and CdSe with vastly lower embodied energies are becoming more established. In addition to this, as with any energy technology a whole array of factors impact the overall emissions of a system, the most significant of which are listed on this page.

Resource inputs and technology

Depending on the material PV is made from the emissions profiles vary substantially. Of the most established technologies organic panels seem to have the largest footprint with an average of 63.4 gCO2e/kWh, with crystalline silicon an average of 55.3 gCO2e/kWh and thin film technologies the lowest at 20.9 gCO2e/kWh. A few other less well established technologies have much lower values such as Cadmium selenide quantum-dot photovoltaics (CdSe QDPV) which has only 5gCO2e/kWh (value based on only one study (Şengül and Theis, 2011)) (Nugent and Sovacool, 2014)


It makes sense that the higher the solar irradiance the more energy a panel can generate during its lifetime and the lower its CO2e/kWh emissions will be (Nugent and Sovacool, 2014). However intense sunlight also degrades the panels at a faster rate and many sunshine rich desert locations have added problems of dust deposits on the panels surface which can prove troublesome to keep at bay.


As it stands in most EU countries at the moment there is rarely a period where PV electricity production outstrips demand. As such the requirements for storage is not as pressing as it will be when renewable technologies increase their share of the electricity mix. However the inclusion of storage systems can dramatically affect the overall emissions. Studies on this seem to be lacking and whilst it is clear the embodied energy in batteries must be considered, it is widely acknowledged storage technology is progressing in leaps and bounds and manufacturing techniques and resource management will improve.

Mounting Location

Ground mounting a PV system can reduce the overall footprint required as can tracking devices despite the increase in electrical hardware (Nugent and Sovacool, 2014).


In general there is not a significant amount of information on the contribution the distances PV panels travel has on their lifecycle emissions (Nugent and Sovacool, 2014). The only study to consider this on its own put the figure at 6.3 gCO2e/kWh (Querini et al., 2012)

Sizing and Capacity

There is an economy of scale benefit from installation of large PV arrays. This is primarily thought to be down to efficiency gains in logistics and transportation (Nugent and Sovacool, 2014).


The emissions associated with manufacturing varies a great deal depending on the country of origin. A product manufactured in China could have double the total emissions of the same manufactured in Germany. In the case of crystalline silicon which requires significant thermal processing, the energy mix used can have a significant impact on the lifecycle emissions of the panels (Nugent and Sovacool, 2014).


The general trend unsruprisingly is that CO2e emissions are substantially reduced as the lifetime of the installation increases. A 5 year operating lifetime results in very large emissions of over 100 gCO2e/kWh, where as increasing to 20 years drops it to 17.5gCO2e/kWh (Nugent and Sovacool, 2014). PV systems have the advantage that they are almost maintenance free owing to their solid state nature.
An analysis of a PV roof installed in 1997 by the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in 2010 (13 year old panels) found an average of 0.7% decrease per year in output, with the poorest recording an overall 20% drop (CAT, 2010). Modern panels can expect far better performance.

Blog at

Up ↑