Clean air is just as important to our survival as clean drinking water. When I grew up in NYC in the 1960s, the USA was just starting to realize the environmental impacts of carbon emissions on our air quality. Back then, there were a lot of environmental problems that we needed to start addressing - waste, water, and air. Air pollution was a known enemy since the 1950s, but we also knew it would take a long-term effort to reduce it.
Air Pollution - Causes and Impact
Air pollution comes from gas engines, industries, landfills, fires, volcanos, farming, and more. The major components of air pollution are carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen oxides, ozone, particulate matter, and sulfur dioxide (acid rain) (1).
Air pollution is a serious global problem. According to the World Health Organization, each year, 4.2 million people die from outdoor air pollution. Another 3.8 million people, mostly from low-income countries, die from indoor air pollution due to smoke from cooking fires. They estimate that 91% of the world's population breathes polluted air (2).
Besides the number of deaths caused by air pollution, there is also a tremendous estimated economic impact. Research estimates that air pollution costs the US approximately 5 percent of its annual GDP in damages, which was approximately USD790 billion in 2014 (3). However, the amount of damage is reportedly dramatically decreasing since 2008 because of changes to energy usage. This trend gives me hope that air pollution can be reduced even more.
History of Legislation for Clean Air
The US government passed the Clean Air Act in 1970, which gave Federal and State governments the power to enact legislation to limit emissions by industries. Later in 1970, the government created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to start implementing requirements that were created from various environmental acts (4).
In the 1980s and 90s, I remember hearing all the time about the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica and how it was critical to our survival to fix the hole. Science prevailed and brought us the 1987 Montreal Protocol, also called the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer (5). Because of this protocol, over the last 30-plus years, we reduced our emissions of chlorofluorocarbons, which has helped mostly eliminate the ozone hole. Worldwide collaboration helped stop and reverse the ozone hole threat to our planet. In the winter of 2019-2020, a rare ozone hole opened over the North Pole, caused by a colder than normal winter. I will try to dig deeper into that issue in a future blog.
Current Situation of Air Pollution
Data from the EPA reveals a continued downward trend in the amount of air pollution generated in the USA, as measured from 1980 through 2019. Measurements of the air quality show decreases in all major air pollutants: carbon monoxide (-85%), lead (-98%), nitrogen dioxide annual (-65%), ozone (-35%), and sulfur dioxide (-92%). The measurements of new emissions of these pollutants have also decreased dramatically (6). The US government estimates that with continued regulations and a movement towards cleaner energy, air quality will continue to improve while air pollutant emissions will continue to decrease.
The increase in natural gas usage and a reduction in coal burning is a big contributor to decreased air pollution. We have also seen automobile companies developing more hybrid and electric vehicles, while some see hydrogen-powered cars as the best solution. To reduce the amount of energy needed, wind power has grown. In the USA, wind-generated electricity made up approximately 7.3% of the total electricity generated in 2019 (7). The cost of solar energy continues to drop, which should continue to entice governments, businesses, and homeowners to install panels. The combination of these alternative energies, plus who knows whatever breakthroughs might happen, will help continue to reduce the amount of air pollution.
The Future Outlook
The outlook for reducing air pollution is promising. I think the US presidential election in November 2020 will strongly impact the future of the planet. Air pollution requires a consistent, collaborative approach to reduce our emissions and clean up the air we already polluted. The Montreal Protocol proves that through global action, we can fix environmental air pollution problems.
Let's do our job to help contribute to a cleaner planet. Future generations of humans are counting on our actions now to make the planet liveable for generations to come.
(4) EPA Clean Air Act. https://www.epa.gov/clean-air-act-overview/evolution-clean-air-act
(5) Montreal Protocol. https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/top-pieces-environmental-legislation/story?id=11067662
Other Unused References
Clean Water Act. https://www.epa.gov/laws-regulations/summary-clean-water-act