“Breathing is life”: Australia must clean up its cars to protect people against COPD

Wednesday 15 November 2023

Australia’s peak body on climate and health has called for cleaner, healthier vehicles to save lives from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). 

The Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA) has joined with international climate and health organisations today for World COPD Day, with the theme Breathing Is Life – Act Earlier. The theme aims to highlight the importance of early lung health, early diagnosis and early interventions. 

COPD is a preventable and treatable disease that causes breathlessness, chronic sputum production and a cough. To protect Australians from COPD and other respiratory illnesses, Australia can implement a strong Fuel Efficiency Standard, accelerate transport electrification and move away from car dependency, the peak body said.

CAHA’s air pollution expert Clare Walter said that tailpipes release tiny toxic particles into the air which can enter the bloodstream when inhaled. Exposure to these particles (PM2.5) can lead to COPD, as well as small blood vessel disease, heart disease, stroke and cognitive decline.

“There is a dominant narrative that air quality is good in Australia. This keeps the general level of public awareness low,” she said.

“The location of air quality reference stations (often in parks and away from pollution sources) means that their exposure to air pollutants is low and not truly representative of the air quality we all breathe. For instance, one key pollutant, nitrogen dioxide, is omitted when estimating health impacts.”

Ms Walter said keeping lungs healthy is an integral part of future health and wellbeing.

“Everyone has the right to breathe clean air. The good news is, ambitious action on cleaning up our transport will unlock immense health benefits for Australians.”

“The first step is a strong Fuel Efficiency Standard. This should be followed by substantial investment in active and public transport, as well as infrastructure to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuel-powered vehicles.”

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare:

  • 7,018 people died due to COPD in 2021.
  • COPD accounted for over half (51 percent) of the disease burden due to respiratory conditions and 3.7 percent of the total disease burden in 2022.
  • It cost the Australian health system an estimated $994.8 million in 2019–20, representing 21 percent  of disease expenditure on respiratory conditions and 0.7 percent of total disease expenditure.

CAHA has today released a communique Reducing car dependency for health and climate to summarise expert contributions on several strategies to decarbonise the transport sector .

MEDIA CONTACT: Sally Spalding at 0401 184 986 or [email protected]



Communique: Reducing car dependency for health and climate


Report: Clearing the Air: Transport decarbonisation and our health