Vehicle Emissions & Arguments of Moral Responsibility


I simply wanted to understand vehicle emissions a little better. Before I knew it, I was reading scholarly articles on the arguments, logic and reasoning behind moral obligations to reduce recreational Sunday drives. There’s no question that the topic of emissions is a hot potato, because it’s personal. For anyone who drives or breathes air, it’s personal. We all have a connection to the issue of car emissions, whether or not we feel a responsibility for it. Let’s begin where I began.

Vehicle Emissions

How Does a Catalytic Converter Reduce Vehicle Emissions?

Wanting to know how a catalytic converter works, I set off. The idea was developed through the 1950s. In the 1970s, the three-way converter came into production. Essentially, this wonderful little assembly takes the hot, dirty exhaust from the engine’s combustion and catalyzes redox (reduction or oxidation) reactions to convert toxic pollutants to less toxic pollutants. (That is to say, one substance loses electrons, another gains them, and the ingredients all rearrange themselves into new compounds that aren’t as bad for the environment as the ones that came out of the engine). Allow me to quickly summarize the molecular gymnastics that goes on in a catalytic converter.

  • Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and carbon monoxide (CO) are two of the main pollutants exiting the engine.
  • Once in the catalytic converter, NO2 converts to plain old N2 and O2 (nitrogen and oxygen). These are good.
  • In the next segment of the converter, nitrogen, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons (basically, unburned fuel, or HC), plus oxygen, encounter each other.
  • Poisonous carbon monoxide meets oxygen: CO + O2 = CO2 (The resulting carbon dioxide is better for our world than carbon monoxide).
  • The hydrocarbons (HC) mix with oxygen (O2) and rearrange to become H2O and CO2.
  • Finally, the overall output is carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen (N2) and water vapor.

It’s really quite brilliant. But not perfect. Too much CO2 is causing trouble for our atmosphere. There’s more of it than can be used by plants or absorbed by bodies of water. Lots of cars are putting lots of it into the air. Of course, industry contributes a fair bit too. Let’s not forget about that. I think this is what the scholar was on about when he was complaining about frivolous Sunday drives.

Anyhow, depending on where you live, you may or may not be legally required to regularly test your car’s emissions. State and provincial law varies greatly on this one. If you’re looking to sell a car, you might get an emissions test done. It’s $30 that might be very well spent, in proving that an engine runs well and is road-worthy. Over the last few years, come Canadian provinces and American states have removed requirements for emissions testing, or just never had them. On-board diagnostics (OBD) in newer vehicles is impressive. Cars can diagnose their own emissions and turn on the ‘Check Engine’ light to let you know.

When you bring it to a mechanic, a diagnostic can be run to narrow down the problematic area. If work needs to be done on the catalytic converter- for example, liquid fuel is getting in there, causing it to burn too hot and melt the ceramic blocks within- make sure your mechanic finds out why the liquid fuel was getting in there in the first place. Fix the problem that caused trouble in the converter. If a replacement one goes in and the same thing happens, a manufacturer’s warranty will not cover it.

That was a rabbit trail. Back to emissions. If you want to you’ll find a heap of tricks and hints about how to pass an emissions test with a vehicle that is expected to fail. Know that behind this bothersome emissions testing lies the truth that we all need to breathe the air into which your car is kicking fumes. Emissions testing is a government’s way to protect its people and resources— albeit an controversial and money-making one.

As for my search leading me to scholarly and philosophical arguments, I have to admit that I find the question intriguing, “Do individual citizens have a moral responsibility to decrease emissions?” It’s a question worth asking, then arguing about- because arguing means you care about something, and caring is good.