The cost of emissions

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I just recently listened to an interesting presentation by Tom Marangon, managing director of Baumot UK, which makes diesel particulate filters (DPF) for a variety of diesel-powered applications worldwide.

From Marangon’s point of view, one of the major “cost points” in the grand global emission control debate that does NOT get discussed enough is how reducing vehicle emissions – particularly particulate matter (PM) or soot from diesel engines – reduces health care expenses while eliminating a far more potent accelerant of “climate change.”

Now, I not completely sold on either of these points and remain suspicious about the government cost figures Marangon cites, but they do provide food for thought.

[You can watch some of his speech here, as he lays out the impact of diesel emissions on human health from a purely dollars-and-cents perspective.]

The big dollar number is $435 – that’s the cost to human health of one kilogram of diesel soot, according to global health data. So, from that perspective, Marangon draws some interesting “return on investment” conclusions for fleets.

First, the average price tag for retrofitting a DPF on a commercial vehicle is $12,000 according to his numbers – not exactly chump change.

But over an expected life cycle of 1,000 hours of operation and/or 15 years of ownership, that diesel-powered vehicle will produce 150 kilograms of soot. Preventing that soot from entering the atmosphere, and thereby being breathed by humans, saves some $53,250 in “societal health costs,” he explained.

“The issue is that PM is made up of very small particles that don’t occur in nature; thus the human body is not prepared to deal with them,” Marangon said.

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Then there’s the impact soot has on climate change. “Soot particulates have 300,000 to 840,000 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide (CO2) per kilogram of substance,” he pointed out. “So there’s a major benefit to using DPFs in terms to mitigating he effects of climate change.”

Now, me personally here, I am pretty skeptical here – both in terms of the “health savings” and “climate change” benefits from removing soot.

My first critique on the health side is pretty straightforward: will we see a reduction in health insurance, hospital bills, doctor bills, and the like from that $435 per kilogram of soot savings? I doubt it. Just look at efforts to reduce smoking tobacco – have health insurance costs gone down as smoking rates among the general population dropped? Hardly.

The impact of soot on “climate change,” however, poses a more interesting question. Whether you believe in the phenomenon or not (for the record, I am in the “not” category), the trucking industry is taking it on the chin when it comes to this subject.

Just witness the new focus on reducing CO2, which is now translating into efforts to create fuel economy standards for commercial vehicles. This effort will entail another huge round of costs to be borne by an industry that just went through nearly a decade of stringent emission reductions already.

Here’s the point, though: if soot has so much greater impact on climate change than carbon, shouldn’t we be focused now on reducing it from other diesel sources – such as trains, boats, and the like? Yes, those modes of transportation are on the list for diesel emission rules similar to trucking, but their timetable is far longer and more relaxed. Should not THOSE timetables be speeded up, due to the far more “dangerous” role diesel plays in “climate change”?

For years, truckers have dealt with layers of costs being added to their operations solely to control emissions while a major competitor – the railroads – faced no similar burden in the same timeframe. And now the focus on carbon reduction threatens to add another cost layer, again without touching the railroads in the near term.

On top of that, the Obama administration is promoting “high speed rail” for passenger service for the U.S., yet no mention is made of the emission controls for such a mode.

So if soot really is the climate change accelerant Baumot’s Marangon said it is, why aren’t we addressing its elimination more strongly in the near term for modes that as-yet have not felt the sting of such rules? It just makes me wonder.

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