No Idle Matter: the consequences of idling

Whenever we find ourselves stuck in traffic, crawling through a restaurant drive-thru, or waiting for passengers, our vehicles’ engines idle and spew harmful pollutants into the atmosphere – pollutants that eventually make their way into our air, water and soil.

We generally don’t give idling much thought, but its cost to the environment, our communities, our health and our pocketbooks cannot be understated.


Environmental Damage

Canadian motorists release millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases a year by idling their vehicle engines. The major emissions in vehicle exhaust are:

  • Carbon dioxide (CO2)
  • Nitrogen dioxide (NO2)
  • Nitrous oxide (N2O)
  • Fine particulate matter (PM5)

When burned, a litre of gasoline produces 2.3 kg of CO2. Fortunately, technological improvements to vehicle engines have resulted in reduced emissions of other pollutants. Nevertheless, those kilograms of CO2 and other pollutants quickly add up with millions of vehicles, and those improvements are offset as the number of vehicles on the road grows.

CO2 and N2O are potent greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Other pollutants can reduce air quality and wreak havoc on local vegetation, wildlife, and bodies of water. For example, NO2 is a key ingredient of both smog and acid rain, and PM2.5 can be absorbed into the soil and reduce plant growth.

The damage caused by motor vehicle engines is not always direct, either. Emissions occur when oil is drilled, refined into gasoline, and transported to your gas station. These emissions are in vain when you idle and waste the fuel produced.

Financial Loss

When you come right down to it, idling is a massive waste of money. Ten minutes spent idling wastes about 0.3 litres of gasoline in an average modern car. That might not sound like a lot of fuel, but idling can consume significant quantities of costly over time.

Idling2Millions of cars cruise Canada’s roadways every day. In one day, with an average idling time of five minutes per vehicle, one million vehicles will collectively spend more than 80,000 hours idling and consume 150,000 litres of fuel. Over the course of a year, a million idling vehicles will consume more than 54 million litres at a cost of more than $54 million.

The indirect costs associated with idling are steep, too. They include:

  • Investments in the drilling and production of gasoline is wasted with and the loss of hundreds of millions of litres.
  • The pollutants in vehicle exhaust are known to cause and exacerbate respiratory diseases like asthma, and some pollutants are even carcinogenic. Air pollution from idling can lead to lead to rise in these diseases and require millions of dollars to be spent on treatment.
  • The damage pollutants can do on our crops and forests can increase food prices, and cost the agriculture and forestry industries millions of dollars in lost production.

Idling gets you nowhere, costs money, and wastes energy. The best and most immediate course of action is to reduce idling whenever possible, by turning your vehicle engine off while parked, limiting warm up time in the winter, and ensuring your vehicle is properly maintained. Idling may be the quintessential example of wasteful activity, but it may also be the easiest to eliminate.

3 thoughts on “No Idle Matter: the consequences of idling

  1. Is there a specific point to this article? You speak of emissions of vehicles idling but give no solutions..short or long term to the cause of bumper to bumper traffic.

    Also can you give me examples of steps taken by the current government to reduce their own personal and corporate usage and emissions outputs?

  2. What are the chances people read the article and actually start to change behaviors; turning off their vehicles. if I see a vehicle idling in a parking lot, who would I call to report this? is it possible for the municipalities to post more signage for ‘no idling zone’ and then enforce monetary fines?

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