The dirt on smoke: Canada’s Kyoto commitment

TORONTO — Diesel engines burn fuel and, in so doing, convert chemical energy to kinetic energy. That’s great if the goal is to move a truck down the road. But the combustion process also produces gases-among other things, carbon dioxide, oxides of nitrogen (NOx), and volatile organic compounds which consist mostly of hydrocarbons (HC)-and sooty particles, or particulate matter.

How much of these gases and particulate matter are expelled out your stacks have been regulated since 1989 (regulations on emissions in Canada mirror those of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States). Health is one concern. NOx and HC lead to the formation of ozone, and according to Health Canada higher concentrations of low-level ozone in the summer increases the death rate among people with respiratory diseases. Meanwhile, particulate matter is thought to cause cancer and can make symptoms of asthma and cardiac disease more severe.

Another concern is global warming, which occurs when certain gases in the atmosphere trap the sun’s infrared radiation. It’s like a greenhouse: as more of these gases, particularly carbon dioxide, are put into the atmosphere, the warmer the atmosphere becomes. The relationship between diesel engines, or any engine burning refined petroleum products, and carbon dioxide is simple: the amount of carbon dioxide released is proportional to the amount of fuel burned. There are about 2.7 kilograms of carbon dioxide produced from every litre of diesel, so a typical large diesel truck in Canada sends over one kilogram of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every kilometre driven. That’s over 100 tonnes a year for the typical linehaul tractor.

Unlike the situation with NOx, HC, and particulate matter, there is no simple way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Cleaner-burning engines or traps in the exhaust don’t really do the trick. The only way truckers can lower carbon dioxide levels is to burn less than the current 11 billion or so litres of diesel fuel their vehicles consume in Canada each year.

This may come by government mandate. In 1997, under the Kyoto Protocol (not yet officially ratified), Canada agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 6% below 1990 levels by the period 2008-2012. In 1995, according to the federal department of Natural Resources, total greenhouse gas emissions in Canada amounted to 618 million tonnes, of which diesel trucks and other diesel-powered vehicles accounted for about 4%. The scary part is that emissions from diesel engines are forecast to increase at a faster rate than almost any other. If the government, in order to comply with the Kyoto Protocol, insists that all industries cut back uniformly to achieve the “6% below 1990” target, diesel trucks would have to be cut back by 14 million tonnes from the amount they are forecast to emit by the year 2010.

That’s a 41% reduction. With no miracle technology likely to achieve this, trucks would have to cut back on diesel fuel consumption by 41%. Given assumptions about increases in fuel efficiency for diesel engines, total truck activity will have to be about one-third less than forecast by the year 2010.

A one-third reduction in truck activity? Not likely. Still, if the government introduces policies that attempt to meet the Kyoto commitment-higher fuel taxes, forced shifts of freight from trucks to rail, etc.-things could get messy.

Rolf Lockwood is editor emeritus of Today's Trucking and a regular contributor to

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