Enviromental impact of cars

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impact of cars on the environment

car on blackboard

Our cars have an impact on the environment in terms of air quality, greenhouse gases, ozone depletion, water quality, use of natural resources and noise.

Read the topics below and arm yourself with powerful information to help you improve the relationship between your car and the environment.



Vehicles affect the environment by creating noise:

  • In urban environments, road traffic is the most important single source of community noise.
  • Noise can cause or bring about disturbance to work, relaxation and sleep; mental stress; and in severe cases physical problems such as chronic exhaustion, high blood pressure and heart disease.
  • Noise from motor vehicles increases with the size and speed of the vehicle. Vehicle and tyre design and vehicle maintenance also affect noise levels.


use of resources

The manufacture, operation and maintenance of vehicles impacts the environment by using non-renewable resources such as:

  • Metals
  • Petroleum (for plastics and fuel)
  • Other fossil fuels (e.g. coal for production of electricity).

This affects the environment as follows:

  • Resources are finite, so we should use them wisely
  • Producing these resources can cause damage, e.g. damage caused by the mining of resources
  • Disposing of products at the end of their life can cause damage

Recycling of used car parts and materials is important as it reduces the one-way flow of resources (mining - use - disposal). It also reduces the volume of material going to landfill, which is wasteful of valuable space and which can cause soil and water pollution over time.


water quality

Vehicles affect water quality because oil and particles get washed into creeks and rivers. In urban environments, run-off from roads goes into stormwater drains. These feed into creeks and rivers, which eventually meet the sea.

what are the pollutants?

  • Oil is a particularly harmful water pollutant. Even a small amount of oil can severely contaminate waterways. Oil can be toxic to aquatic life and smother plants and animals.
  • Particles from the wear of tyres, brakes and other components get washed into the stormwater and pollute waterways.
  • When it rains, air pollution from cars mixes with rainwater and falls to the ground, adding to water pollution.
  • Detergents also contaminate waterways.

how can you reduce the impact of your vehicle on water quality?

  • To avoid leaks and reduce wear, keep the vehicle well maintained and drive smoothly
  • Dispose of used oil properly. For details on your closest oil collection facility, contact your local council or find out how you can recycle oil
  • When you wash your car, try to do so on a grassed area or somewhere that the detergents won't be washed into the gutter. Only use enough detergent as is necessary and tip the remaining washing water into the sewer, not down the gutter.


ozone depletion

Australian legislation bans the manufacture and importation of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), an ozone depleting substance that was once widely used in car air-conditioners. Their replacement gases, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and hydrocarbons (HCs) do not damage the ozone layer. They do, however, have a greenhouse effect. To avoid leaks of air-conditioning gases, keep units maintained and follow instructions in the owner's manual.

Ozone in the upper atmosphere protects life on earth by absorbing ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the Sun. UV radiation is linked to skin cancer, genetic damage and immune system suppression as well as reduced productivity in agricultural crops.


greenhouse gases

Cars produce greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming and climate change. The main greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide. Others include nitrous oxide and methane.

Greenhouse gases occur naturally in the atmosphere, trapping some of the heat radiated from the Earth's surface. Increases in the amount of these gases, mainly through the burning of carbon-based fuels such as coal and oil, are increasing the average temperature of the Earth, affecting local climates including temperature and rainfall.

In Victoria, passenger vehicles contribute about 10% of total greenhouse gas emissions (Victorian Greenhouse Gas Inventory, 1999). Reducing fuel consumption will reduce these emissions.

For every litre of petrol used, 2.3 kg of carbon dioxide (the main greenhouse gas) is emitted into the atmosphere. The average passenger vehicle emits about four tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. Read our 10 tips for reducing fuel costs for tips on reducing your fuel consumption and greenhouse emissions.

  • 1 litre petrol = 2.3 kilograms of carbon dioxide
  • 1 litre LPG = 1.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide
  • 1 litre diesel = 2.7 kilograms of carbon dioxide

Another way of helping to reduce the greenhouse impact of your driving is to join Greenfleet. For a fee, they will plant enough trees to absorb the annual greenhouse emissions from the average car.

For more information or to join, visit the Greenfleet website.

The gases used in car air conditioning systems, although small in volume, make a comparatively large greenhouse impact. It is therefore important to avoid leaks of these gases.

To reduce leakage of these gases, follow the manufacture's instructions as to air conditioner use. Generally they suggest using your air conditioner for a short period on a regular basis to prevent the seals from developing leaks.


air quality

Even with increasing numbers of cars travelling longer distances, air pollution has been decreasing over time. This is due to a tightening of regulations affecting industry and vehicle emission standards. Emissions from motor vehicles are decreasing as newer cars with better emission controls replace older cars.

Although a smoky exhaust indicates a polluting car, the reverse is not true. Many pollutants are not visible. Your car could be a big polluter and you would not see a thing. So it is important to keep your vehicle properly maintained.

Air pollution has negative health effects, especially for vulnerable people, including those with allergic and respiratory conditions, such as asthma, hay fever and sinusitis, and respiratory and lung conditions commonly associated with the elderly. Research suggests that certain air pollutants (e.g. benzene) are carcinogenic.

Air pollution is not uniform across a city, but varies with concentrations of industry, traffic conditions, land form and weather patterns.

Emissions from vehicles include carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen, hydrocarbons, and particles. Passenger vehicles contribute 47% of carbon monoxide emissions, 40% of nitrogen oxides, 27% of hydrocarbons and 4% of particles (1998 inventory of Melbourne's air pollution by EPA Victoria).

Evaporated fuel is also a pollutant. About a third of vehicle hydrocarbon emissions are from evaporation, which occurs when driving, during refuelling, and even when stationary. Evaporation is increased by poorly sealed fuel tanks (including poorly fitting fuel caps or caps with worn seals), spillage, and overfilling of the fuel tank.


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