Traffic emissions may cause over 11,000 deaths a year

Friday 24 February 2023

Modelling by Melbourne Climate Futures researchers shows that health impacts from vehicle emissions are likely to be far higher than current estimates informing policy decisions.

A broad group of air pollution experts is calling for urgent action to clear the air.

Melbourne Climate Futures Academy fellows Ms Clare Walter and Dr Kelvin Say told the Vehicle Pollution Forum on 24 February that the latest research shows that vehicle emissions in Australia may cause:

  • 11,105 premature deaths in adults per year
  • 12,210 cardiovascular hospitalisations per year
  • 6,840 respiratory hospitalisations per year
  • 66,000 active asthma cases per year.

By these figures, traffic pollution causes ten times more premature deaths than road accidents, which killed 1,123 people in 2021.

The numbers were formulated by scaling the most recent research on New Zealand vehicle-emissions impacts, the New Zealand HAPINZ 3.0 study, to the Australian population.

Recent international evidence tells us traffic emissions are associated with far greater health consequences than previously thought.

Figures used by policy makers to date are far lower, according to available information, with none estimating more than 2,000 premature deaths per year in Australia.

Other health consequences include a range of cardio-respiratory diseases including lung cancer, childhood asthma, adverse birth outcomes and diabetes.

Children and unborn babies are particularly vulnerable to the effects of air pollution.  

Those chronically exposed to traffic pollution are far more likely to have asthma, respiratory infections, and even stunted lung growth and organ damage.

These health effects are caused by a mix of pollutants including fine particulate matter (PM2.5) – tiny solid particles that can be inhaled and even enter the bloodstream – and nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

Currently, Australian estimates do not factor in NO2 gas emissions, with the result that there are no robust estimates of vehicle-emissions impacts to guide policy makers.

Australia is the only OECD country without new vehicle carbon dioxide standards and lags a decade behind European standards for fuel quality and vehicle emissions.

The Melbourne Climate Futures position statement has been endorsed by the Australian Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance, which includes the Lung Foundation, the Heart Foundation, the Cancer Council and Diabetes Australia.

Federal members of parliament Ms Sophie Scamps MP, Ms Monique Ryan MP, and Ms Allegra Spender, as well as the Climate and Health Alliance (CAHA), Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA), the Electric Vehicle Council, and Tesla have also endorsed the statement.

The figures were formulated by scaling the most recent research on New Zealand vehicle-emissions impacts, the New Zealand HAPINZ 3.0 study, to the Australian population.

Attributable quotes:

Mr Roland Sapsford, CEO at the Climate and Health Alliance

'Pollution from cars and trucks is killing people, making us sick and changing our climate. Australians deserve urgent action to clean up what comes out of tailpipes, and make it easier for more people to leave the car at home.

'We can have cleaner air, safer streets and healthier communities for everyone, at the same time as we reduce climate-changing emissions.

'Electric vehicles have an important role to play in creating a healthy and climate-friendly transport system. Better public transport, safer and easier walking and cycling and good urban planning are also key to creating a healthy climate-friendly transport system for everyone.'

Media inquiries:  Remy Shergill | [email protected] | Tel +61 423 075 895


Ms Clare Walter, Doctoral Candidate at Melbourne Climate Futures and position statement co-lead author

‘There are short and long-term changes we can make to mitigate the effects of traffic pollution in Australia and dramatically improve health outlooks, as well as the economic burden of emissions-related health impacts.’

‘With these high levels of mortality and morbidity impacts, we look to our leaders to make the decisions required to reduce the social, economic and human costs of vehicle emissions.’

Media enquiries: Beth Barber | [email protected] | +61 411 368 637


Dr Kelvin Say, Melbourne Climate Futures Academy Fellow and position statement co-lead author

‘With the federal government aiming for 3.8 million electric vehicles in 2030, with 90 per cent of new car registrations being EVs, there could be significant and positive implications for health in Australia.’

Media enquiries: Beth Barber | [email protected] | +61 411 368 637


Dr Vicki Kotsirilos, a Melbourne-based GP, and spokesperson for Doctors for the Environment Australia 

‘Like smoking, vehicle emissions contribute to childhood asthma and recurrent lung infections. Adults are at higher risk of premature deaths, stroke, diabetes, heart, and lung disease from exposure to vehicle emissions. Air pollution is another risk factor for poor health.

‘I routinely assess patients on how much air pollution they are exposed to when they present with heart or lung problems such as asthma or recurrent respiratory infections. 

‘Children are particularly at higher risk of being harmed by traffic pollution from idling cars – at schools, shopping centres, and childcare centres – and how close they live to a busy road. 

Raising public awareness of the harms of air pollution on health is vital.’

Media enquiries: Carmela Ferraro | [email protected] | +61 410 703 074