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- Types of Air Pollution
- History of Air Pollution
- Remedies and Solutions for Air Pollution
- Statutory and Regulatory Solutions
- Technological Solutions
- Market-Based Solutions
Air pollution may be defined as contamination of the atmosphere by gaseous, liquid, or solid wastes or by byproducts that can endanger human health and the welfare of plants and animals, attack materials, reduce visibility, and produce undesirable odors. Natural sources such as volcanoes, coniferous forests, and hot springs release some pollutants, but their effect is generally very small compared to that of emissions from industrial sources, power and heat generation, waste disposal, and internal combustion engines and is considered part of the natural order of things and not part of the problem of air pollution.
Fuel combustion is the largest contributor to air pollutant emissions from human activities, with stationary and mobile sources being almost equally responsible. Cattle also release large amounts of methane into the atmosphere.
Types of Air Pollution
Air pollution can be broken down into two general types: indoor and outdoor. The major pollutants contributing to indoor air pollution are radon, volatile organic compounds, formaldehyde, biological contaminants, and combustion by-products such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen dioxides, and particulates. Although indoor pollution has come to be recognized as a major health problem in recent decades, this essay focuses on the outdoor type of air pollution.
The major outdoor pollutants are sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone, and suspended particulate matter such as soot, carbon dioxide, and various toxins. All of these substances are contaminants. Contaminants that adversely affect human, plant, animal life and property or that interfere with the enjoyment of life and property are considered pollutants. While different states and countries have different legal definitions of what constitutes an air pollutant, most agree that pollutants include particulate matter, dust, fumes, gas, mist, smoke, vapor or odorous substances, or any combination thereof.
Even the most pristine atmospheric environments contain some substance that might be considered an air pollutant. Thus, defining air pollution requires testing how much of such substances is present. For testing, scientists use benchmarks (samples that contain virtually no pollutants); these clean samples provide a working standard of pollution-free air. Contaminants in quantities above that benchmark can be defined as air pollutants. If levels are high, they constitute an air pollution problem.
Air pollutants exist in two physical forms. First, pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, ozone, and hydrocarbon vapors exist in the form of a gas. Gases lack definite volume and shape, and their molecules are widely separated. The second form of air pollution is particulate matter, such as smoke, dust, fly ash, and mists. Pollutants are also classified as primary and secondary. Primary pollutants remain in the same chemical form in which they are released into the atmosphere; examples include sulfur dioxide and hydrocarbons. Secondary pollutants are the result of chemical reactions between two or more pollutants. Photochemical reactions, for example, produce the secondary pollutant peroxyacetyl nitrate (PAN).
Air pollution sources may also be classified according to how they generate emissions. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies sources as transportation, stationary combustion, industrial processes, solid waste disposal facilities, and miscellaneous for reporting air emissions to the public. The EPA’s definitions are as follows:
- Transportation Sources: This category includes most emissions produced by transportation sources during the combustion process. Internal combustion engines fueled by gasoline and diesel are the biggest sources in this category. Other sources include trains, ships, tractors and other farm equipment, planes, and construction machinery.
- Stationary Combustion Sources: These sources produce energy only, and the emissions are a result of fuel combustion. Sources include power plants and home heating furnaces.
- Industrial Processes: Sources that emit pollutants during the manufacture of products are included in this category. Petrochemical plants, petrochemical refining, food and agriculture industries, chemical processing, metallurgical and mineral product factories, and wood processing industries are major industrial sources of air emissions. Smaller-scale sources include dry cleaning, painting, and degreasing processes.
- Solid Waste Disposal: This category includes facilities that dispose of unwanted trash. Refuse incineration and open burning are important sources.
- Miscellaneous: These sources do not fit in any of the preceding four categories. They include forest fires, house fires, agriculture burning, asphalt road paving, and coal mining.
Air pollution problems can be local and regional as well as on a global scale. Photochemical smog is an example of a local-regional air pollution problem. It occurs in the lower portion of the atmosphere, known as the troposphere, and its principal unhealthy ingredient is “ground-level ozone.” Its health effects include asthma, bronchitis, coughing, chest pain, increased susceptibility to respiratory infections, and decreased lung function.
Global warming, acid rain, ozone depletion, and greenhouse gas emissions are examples of global air pollution problems.
History of Air Pollution
The first air pollutants produced by humans no doubt were emitted when cavemen learned to harness fire. The Los Angeles basin, now the site of one of the worst air pollution problems in the industrialized world, was known to the local Native Americans as “the valley of many smokes” because of the haze produced by the many campfires trapped by the surrounding mountains.
Preindustrial manufacturing was also a source of air pollution. This fact has been documented in both the historical and natural historical records. Discussion of urban air pollution in Europe can be found as early as the end of the sixteenth century. Indeed, as early as 1306, King Edward I of England banned the burning of “sea coal” in London in an effort to clear the skies. Scientists examining the ice sheets of Greenland—which record air pollutants from tens of thousands of years ago—have found evidence of lead emissions produced by such ancient civilizations as the Romans.
Still, air pollution in preindustrial times remained a small and localized problem. Although the cities of long ago may have witnessed occasional heavy smoke from heating, cooking, and small-scale manufacturing, the health effects were minimal for two important reasons: the vast majority of people did not live in urban settings, and those who did tended to die at a relatively young age, before any adverse effects could manifest themselves. The only mass pollutants of the preindustrial era were caused by natural sources, such as volcanic eruptions, forest fires, and dust storms.
The Industrial Revolution, which began in England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and then spread to the rest of Europe and North America, saw the introduction of air pollution on a much larger scale. There were several reasons for this. The first was a change in commonly used fuel. Wood was largely replaced by coal, and later by such other carbon-based fuels as petroleum. Second was a change in the source of power.
Steam engines, powered by coal, replaced largely nonpolluting human, animal, and water power. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, were major increases in the sheer scale of human endeavor. Not only did the Industrial Revolution lead to sharp and sudden increases in human population, it also created an exponential expansion of manufacturing output. Where scattered workshops had once produced a limited supply of goods for small local markets, now vast urban factories released enormous amounts of coal smoke and dust while manufacturing the quantities of goods and materials required by larger, more demanding markets.
By the mid-nineteenth century, England was experiencing major outbreaks of air pollution in its leading industrial cities, prompting the government to take the first systematic measures to limit the production of air pollutants. The Public Health Act of 1848, for instance, attempted to control the output of smoke and ash. But it was a deadly episode in London in 1873—in which a heavy fog laden with smoke from thousands of coal fires killed more than 200 persons—that led to the more rigorous Public Health Act of 1875.
These efforts to control air pollution, however, were both sporadic and largely ineffective, especially against the growth of industry and, equally important, the spread of the automobile. During the first half of the twentieth century, industrialized regions in both Europe and the United States were plagued by major episodes of deadly air pollution. A 3-day smoke-laden fog in 1930 was responsible for the death of 60 people in the Meuse Valley, Belgium. A similar episode lasting 9 days in 1931 left 592 people dead in Manchester and Salford, England. Nine days of extreme smoke cover was also reported in downtown St. Louis in November 1939. And a combination of heavy plant emissions and atmospheric conditions in Donora, Pennsylvania, caused a 4-day fog in which 7,000 people were reported sick and 20 people died in October 1948.
The defining air pollution episode of modern times occurred in London in 1952, when a coal smoke—laden fog descended on the city for 4 days, resulting in an estimated 4,000 deaths. Not only did the episode lead to the landmark United Kingdom Clear Air Act of 1956, but it also forced the city’s inhabitants to switch from highly polluting coal to clean-burning natural gas for their heating and cooking needs.
London was not alone in facing such problems, of course. The problem of air pollution was becoming more apparent in cities throughout the industrialized world. Awareness of conventional pollutants from auto emissions and smokestacks arose first, in the 1950s and 1960s. Then in the 1970s and later, understanding of the threat posed by invisible pollutants such as carbon dioxide grew.
At the same time, much of the industrialized world came to realize that the problem of air pollution was not just local. The 1980s brought a new awareness of acid rain, caused by the burning of sulfur-rich coal in utility power plants. Acid rain, the popular term for precipitation with abnormally high levels of sulfuric and nitric acids, was found to be killing forests across the Northern Hemisphere from Canada to Scandinavia. The transnational dimension of the problem was recognized when people realized the acid was not coming from local sources but from power plants as far away as the American Midwest and Germany.
The realization that air pollution was an increasingly global problem prodded political leaders around the world to seek international solutions. The first major effort was the Montreal Protocol of 1987, designed to limit the output of ozone-depleting fluorocarbons.
Since the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have increased by an estimated 35 percent overall. The increase in ambient carbon dioxide concentrations has come primarily from human-created emissions. Carbon dioxide is produced by the burning of solid waste, fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal), and wood and wood products. Deforestation, biomass burning, and such non-energy-producing processes as cement manufacture also emit notable quantities of carbon dioxide. Combustion of fossil fuels contributes more than 98 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions; industrial sources account for about 2 percent. Other gases contributing to global warming include methane, nitrous oxide, ozone, chlorofluorocarbons (CDCs), and halons. Together, these gases reduce the escape of terrestrial thermal infrared radiation—the so-called greenhouse effect, whereby radiation from the sun enters the atmosphere but is unable to escape, causing increases in the Earth’s atmospheric and surface temperatures, with disastrous environmental consequences.
In December 1997, world leaders gathered in Kyoto, Japan, to work on a global treaty to cut the emissions of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide. The ultimate goal of the treaty was “to achieve stabilization of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at levels that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (humaninduced) interference with the climate system.” The Kyoto Protocol first sketched the basic rules and, after further negotiation, fleshed out the details of how they would be applied to each nation. In the United States, however, widespread political opposition forced the Clinton administration to table the treaty rather than present it to Congress, where it was almost certain to be defeated. The George W. Bush administration also made clear its opposition to the treaty. Opponents contend the treaty would have a detrimental effect on the U.S. economy and it fails to require significant reductions from major producers of greenhouse gases in the developing world—such as India and China. But both major candidates set to succeed him in 2009—Republican nominee John McCain and Democratic nominee Barack Obama—indicated that they were open to U.S. participation in new global warming initiatives.
Remedies and Solutions for Air Pollution
Efforts to reduce air pollution have generally fallen into three major categories: regulatory, technological, and economic or market-based. The regulatory approach, as summarized above, has been used for centuries, although it did not really come into its own until after World War II. Technological solutions have an even longer history—the chimney, for example, did much to reduce the impact of smoke from cooking fires—but they, too, had no significant effect until the postwar period, and especially since the 1970s. Finally, the use of market-based methods for reducing air pollution has largely been a product of recent decades.
Statutory and Regulatory Solutions
Regulatory solutions, by definition, center on government efforts. Specifically, this approach entails passing laws and establishing government agencies to reduce air pollution through government monitoring and punitive measures (usually fines but, in egregious cases, criminal sentences as well).
In the United States, such statutory and regulatory solutions largely date back to the 1950s and 1960s. While certain local and state governments passed laws to limit or reduce air pollution before then, it was not until 1955 that the federal government got involved with the Air Pollution Control Act, which authorized a program of research and technical assistance to the states. This legislation was strengthened by the Air Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1960 and 1962, the Clean Air Act of 1963, and the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act of 1965. The Air Quality Control Act of 1967 replaced the Clean Air Act of 1963 and established air-quality control regions (AQCR) across the country based on common meteorology, topography, and climate. The law represented a major shift in the management of national air quality.
Still, it took the burgeoning environmental movement of the late 1960s and a series of environmental catastrophes to prod the government to pass serious air pollution legislation. The Clean Air Act of 1970 (CAA), signed by President Richard Nixon, was one of the toughest of anti-air pollution laws in the world.
The Clean Air Amendments Act (CAA) of 1970 provided uniform enforcement policies among the states and established national ambient air quality standards. It also transferred legal authority for all federal air pollution control functions from the secretary of Health, Education and Welfare to the administrator of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The emphasis shifted toward stringent legal remedies such as fines, litigation, injunction, and jail terms. The following goals were identified:
- To protect human health and the air environment.
- To establish a national research and development program to prevent or control air pollution.
- To provide federal assistance and leadership to state and local governments for air pollution programs.
- To develop specific standards for hazardous air pollutants. The CAA applies to auto emissions as well as to stationary sources.
The CAA has been amended several times, most notably by the Clean Air Amendments Act of 1977 (PL-95/95), with the following major provisions:
- Air quality standards
- Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) program
- Nonattainment (NA) area regulation
- National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollution (NESHAP)
- New Source Performance Standards (NSPS)
- Smoke stack height regulations
Further efforts to reduce air pollution have included the banning of leaded gas in 1986 and, most recently, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 (CAAA). While the CAAA employs a variety of old-style regulatory methods to reduce air pollution, including new standards for cars and rules related to reducing sulfur dioxide emissions, it also breaks from the past in its use of market-based approaches.
In 1977, the CAA set regulations on pollutants with a critical exemption for old coal plants. It allowed the old plants to continue polluting at existing levels but if the plants were renovated to increase capacity, they were required to install new pollution-reduction technologies and procedures. The government applied a “New Source Review” (NSR) rule to determine whether the installation of pollution controls was required for operation of the plant at its new capacity.
The Clinton administration felt that utilities were not voluntarily capping emissions beyond NSR rule requirements. It considered maintenance activities such as replacing a steam duct or a turbine blade as constituting “major modification” and therefore requiring installation of expensive control technology under the NSR rule. As a result, it sued a number of utility companies, including American Electric Power Corp., Duke Energy Corp., several Southern Company subsidiaries, and Cinergy Corp.
To soften the impact of the NSR rule on roughly 17,000 older power plants, refineries, and factories, the George W. Bush administration later added a new definition of “routine maintenance.” The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) called the change “a clean air rollback.”
The Clinton administration had established regulations related to air permits, acid rain, mobile sources, chemical safety, and other provisions of CAA. By contrast, the Bush administration initiated support for fossil fuels, a pro-development energy policy, and more lax environmental policies, resulting in more domestic oil and gas drilling in sensitive areas such as the Rocky Mountains and the shores of California, Florida, and other coastal states. Early on, the Bush administration introduced its so-called “Clear Skies” initiative, whose goal was to eliminate mandatory pollution caps for individual plants in favor of setting industry-wide levels and allowing companies to buy and sell emissions credits. This enabled old coal plants run by the giant energy companies to continue operating at existing pollution levels. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a major environmental organization, the new pollution caps were “weaker” than the existing law and would delay cleanup of the related pollutants by up to a decade. On the other hand, the Bush administration did support Clinton-era regulations for reducing pollutants from diesel fuel after the National Academy of Sciences confirmed their importance. Bush also agreed to sign an international treaty banning the production of certain persistent organic pollutants.
Innovation and technology are key to the long-term solution of air-pollution problems, including climate change. Policies that address climate change would spur innovation and, in the process, create new economic opportunities for first movers. Progress is needed in emissions technology (e.g., reformulated gasoline) and prewarmed catalytic converters, and emissions rules are to be extended to trucks, pickups, and SUVs by 2007 (and already being voluntarily complied with by the Ford Motor Co.).
Solar power can be used in many ways, including passive solar heating, lighting during the day, and electricity generation. Photovoltaic (PV) technology required for solar electricity tends to be more expensive than other renewable technologies, but the systems are quiet, nonpolluting, reliable, and can be used anywhere.
Many of the most cost-effective technologies currently available for reducing greenhouse gases are based on increasing energy efficiency. Further investments in such technological solutions will yield climate-change benefits and also lower consumer and industry costs. Some examples of energy-efficient technologies are integrated energy management systems for buildings, lightweight materials for vehicles, and eco-efficient industrial processes.
Continued technological advances will lower costs, encourage greater uptake of wind and photovoltaic power, and enable less emissions-intensive industrial processes. Fuel cells powered by hydrogen could replace the internal combustion engine and provide power sources for buildings. Honda’s introduction of fuel-cell cars for public use in December 2003 was a notable technological achievement and commercial breakthrough. These cars deliver 30 to 50 percent higher mileage than comparable gas-powered cars.
Biotechnology offers another area of opportunity for climate- and environmentally friendly innovation. Bioproducts such as ethanol, a plant-based fuel, can be blended into gasoline and a wide range of products including plastics, textiles, paints, lubricants, solvents, adhesives, and even cosmetics. Industrial processes using enzymes and biocatalysts can also supplement or replace more energy-intensive processes.
The development and implementation of air pollution laws in the United States and the rest of the world have taken an interesting turn. Legislation over the course of the last two decades or so has encouraged and established the statutory environment for market-based solutions to environmental challenges. The focus has been on economic development and environmental results rather than bureaucratic process, and building partnerships with the public.
Market-based environmental policies generally provide cost-effective methods for achieving their goals. While a typical piece of legislation aims at directly changing polluters’ behavior by outlawing or limiting certain practices, market-based policies let the polluters decide whether to pollute or not, and then pay for that decision. Well-designed market-based environmental policies promote inventive changes that prevent pollution, increase industrial efficiency, and drive the development of an industrial economy that is both wealth-creating and environmentally sustainable.
The key to the market-based approach is financial incentive. Emission offset and trading actions are two market-based solutions that have evolved. The emission offsets program allows companies to offset their own emissions by causing a reduction or sequestration of emissions outside their operations. Consumers and businesses can also buy emission reduction credits (ERCs) from another company or sell ERCs earned by taking actions to reduce air pollution. The number of credits corresponds to the amount and type of emission reduction, and businesses can typically sell, trade, or bank their ERCs for future use.
Emission trading is a regulatory program that gives firms the flexibility to select cost-effective solutions to achieve established environmental goals. The required air pollution reductions are achieved by allowing organizations that “overcomply” to exchange emissions credits/allowances with those that “undercomply” to air-quality standards. A third party sells the offset allowance to an organization whose marginal cost of control is greater than the cost of the offset allowance.
Market-based solutions were fully incorporated in the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which encourage the use of such market-based approaches as emission trading to attain and maintain National Ambient Air Quality Standards for all pollutants. The EPA’s clean air markets programs include various market-based regulatory programs, the best known of which is the Acid Rain Program. The overall goal of that program is achieving environmental and public health benefits by reducing emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from fossil fuel combustion. Under the Acid Rain Program, any polluter can purchase sulfur dioxide (SO2) allowances through a broker or at an annual auction conducted every March by the Chicago Board of Trade. Since 1993, the spot price of successful bids has fluctuated from a low of $91 per ton in 1996 to a high of $450 per ton in 1993. SO2 allowances were sold for $172 to $250 per ton in the 2003 auction.
Other examples of allowance trading include the nitrogen oxide budget programs established by the Ozone Transport Commission (OTC) in the northeastern United States, the New Jersey Open Market Emissions Trading (OMET) Program, the Michigan Air Emission Trading Program, and the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission’s (TNRCC) Emission Reduction Credit (ERC) Banking and Trading Program. The concept of emissions trading is also being applied to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in programs established in several countries:
- The UK emissions trading scheme is the world’s first economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions trading program. Some thirty-four organizations have voluntarily taken on a legally binding obligation to reduce their emissions against 1998–2000 levels, delivering over 4 million tonnes of additional carbon dioxide equivalent emission reductions in 2006.
- The Green House Gas Emission Reduction Training (GERT) Pilot is a Canadian federal government program in collaboration with six provinces, industrial associations, and environmental groups. The pilot will provide information on the practical workings of an emission reduction trading system and evaluate the environmental and economic benefits, as well as the technical, administrative, and legal aspects, of emission reduction trading.
- The Greenhouse Gas Cap-and-Trade program, introduced in the United States in January 2003, will help reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by emitters in the electricity, transportation, industrial, and commercial sectors who produce 10,000 metric tons carbon equivalent or more per year. Tradable allowances are allocated to emitters in each sector free of charge. The program’s ultimate goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 2000 levels by 2010 and to 1990 levels by 2016.
- China’s first agreement on sulfur dioxide emission trading reached by two power plants in different cities became effective in July 2003. According to the agreement, the buyer will pay 1.7 million Yuan (about US$200,000) for an annual emission quota of 1,700 tons from the seller over the next 3 years. This agreement will help in generating more electricity to meet local demands by the buyer.
Such offset and emission trading actions can supplement the emission reduction by “best practices” or facilitate the flow of capital to fund such actions. Best practices includes the installation of more advanced control technology, use of cleaner fuels, increasing energy efficiency, and enhancing renewable energy use. Offset and emissions trading actions might involve improved efficiency in generating, transmitting, distributing, and consuming electricity, but they are typically undertaken by a third party.
Worsening air pollution in modern society is a critical health problem—a problem that shows up in higher rates of asthma, tuberculosis, and numerous other respiratory diseases. The solutions require a global approach. International agencies such as the United Nations play an active role in developing treaties. The level of activity to control air pollution varies from one nation to another. Air pollution accidents and episodes have played a major role in swaying public opinion and forcing political action. In response, many air-quality regulations have been promulgated and many large organizations have been created to implement them.
An important element in the pollution problem is the desire for economic growth. In the absence of controls, air pollution levels generally continue to grow as the demand for goods and services increases. Viable solutions must encompass politics, economics, science and technology, and lifestyle changes.
Failure to understand the consequences of pollution is also part of the problem. For years, people thought they could safely get rid of garbage, sewage, exhaust, and other waste products by throwing them away, flushing them down the drain, or releasing them into the air. Basic awareness and ongoing education are thus essential.
Are we prepared to change our lifestyle and make economic concessions to reduce air pollution? The tradeoffs may not always be direct or necessary. Indeed, the problem of air pollution has created a new market for products and services, and spending on air pollution control has become an important economic component in many communities. For example, Thermo Electron Corp., an important contributor to the local economy of Marietta, Ohio, has revenues of more than $728 million and provides several thousand jobs related to air-monitoring services in different parts of the United States. CH2M Hill Companies, an environmental consulting company with offices throughout the world, is another air pollution control business that has a positive impact on local economies. New market-based approaches are being introduced to increase operational efficiency, lower raw material consumption and disposal costs, and ensure compliance with air quality regulations in local communities.
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