Today is World Environment Day! It’s a day to celebrate the incredible natural environment we have and what we can do to improve it. This year’s theme is Air Pollution. Around the world hundreds of thousands of lives are affected by air pollution and with a growing population it could still get worse!
There are five main sources of air pollution generated by what we do and a sixth that is completely out of our control. There is plenty we can do to reduce the amount of air pollution, however.
Depending on where you’re reading this it may or may not be an issue in your country. The vast majority of households in the developed world safely burn gas or use electricity for heating with very little impact on the air we breathe. However, burning forms of fossil fuels, wood and biomass products in the household for warmth, to cook or provide lighting can have dangerous impacts on respiratory health.
Take Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia for example. The majority of people living in the Mongolian capital live in small homes and burn gas, coal or just about anything that burns to keep warm during the harsh winters the city experiences. This has led to some of the worst air pollution of any country around the world – almost 80% of the air pollution comes from the stoves used to heat and cook in the home.
A 2011 study estimated that 1 in 10 deaths in Ulaanbaatar can be attributed to air pollution. That was eight years ago and the situation is no better than it was then.
Even in developed countries there are still things you can do to reduce the amount of air pollution produced in the home. Just reducing the amount of energy you use can play a big role in reducing air pollution from the home. Turning lights and electronics off at the wall instead of leaving them in standby and having energy efficient appliances in the home can play an important role in reducing air pollution.
Around the world, industry is a huge generator of air pollution. Coal burning, mining, and concrete production all create huge amounts of air pollution in countries around the world.
The burning of coal for energy is still widely practised all over the world despite having a large number of more efficient fuels available to us. Much of Europe that has been very dependent on coal in the past – many still are – but are beginning to commit to phasing out coal in the next decade or two.
In the UK we still use coal and unfortunately have recently reopened a deep coal mine in Cumbria. However, despite the desperate grasp on fossil fuels that many in this country still seem to cling on to, the UK just went 18 days, 6 hours and 10 minutes without the need for energy produced by coal. Gas and nuclear did play a big role in filling the gap left by coal but renewables also played there part and gave us a good indication of the role they will play in the near future!
Mining also plays a big role in air pollution – something I’ve witnessed first hand living in Perth! As huge amounts of earth are moved to mine for metals and minerals, dust can often be blown into the air and carried around by the wind. In Perth this often meant there was smog or some noticeable air pollution over the city.
The transport sector currently contributes almost a quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions which will only increase as the global population continues to grow and an increasing number of cars are on the road. Other emissions and particulates produced by car engines and tyres have a very detrimental impact on human health
It is estimated that around 400,000 people die annually from respiratory diseases and issues relating to poor air quality from transport with almost half of those linked more specifically to emissions produced by diesel vehicles. There is also medical research that suggests people living in urban areas near main roads are 12% more likely to suffer from dementia.
Switching to public transport or driving cars that use cleaner fuel (or are electric) are just a couple of ways that we can reduce air pollution in our cities around the world. Doing so would reduce emissions that contribute to climate change, lead to healthier cities and reduce the pressure on healthcare services caused by the growing number of respiratory diseases related to poor urban air quality.
We’re likely all aware of the climatic impact of agriculture and forestry management play in the management of greenhouse gases. Around 24% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from the agriculture, forestry and similar land use sectors.
It goes beyond livestock farming though. Rice paddies and the burning of agricultural waste is also a large contributor to air pollution and production of methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas like carbon dioxide but even more potent in comparison. It also plays a very big role in asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
We can all very easily do our part to reduce the amount of air pollution produced by the agriculture sector. Cutting down on our meat consumption or even transitioning to a plant-based diet would have a dramatic effect on the amount of methane and ammonia produced by livestock farming.
The way we manage our waste is also vital if we’re to reduce air pollution around the world. A huge number of countries around the world still practice the burning of waste, regardless of type or material. It’s estimated that 40% of global waste worldwide is burned and that can release large volumes of greenhouse gases and other harmful particulates.
This is a much bigger problem in developing countries in comparison to developed countries that often have much better waste management. Developed countries have much better waste management because we have the money to practice better techniques and the infrastructure to sort, separate and properly dispose of certain types of waste. Information transfers from developed to developing countries will help bridge that gap and reduce air pollution in the developing world.
I’m not just blaming it on the developing world though. In countries like the UK, USA and Australia we still produce huge amounts of waste and an incredible amount of food waste. It’s estimated that around a third of the food bought in developed countries goes to waste. The total of emissions builds up when you begin to include the emissions produced to farm and ship that food and the emissions released as it breaks down. Composting or separating organic waste in the waste stream for bioenergy can reduce the amount that is wasted. However, what we really need to do start reducing the amount we waste and only buying what we need.
Out of Our Control
There are some sources of air pollution we can do nothing or very little about. Volcanic eruptions are infrequent but can play a huge role in human health and even climate regulation – the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption actually cooled the planet by 0.5℃!
Sandstorms, that are a little more regular than volcanic eruptions, are a much greater threat to human health and there is very little that we can do about them. Small particles, as well as pathogens and other harmful substances, can be transported thousands of miles in these sandstorms. If you live in the UK and have ever noticed sand on your car there’s a very good chance that that sand has been blown across Europe by southerly winds!
What Can You Do on World Environment Day?
I have listed a few but there is plenty we can all do to reduce air pollution. Switching energy providers to those that produce it through renewable sources is one thing we can do at home. If that isn’t possible then being more aware of the energy we do use and finding ways to be much more energy efficient is vitally important.
Using public transport is another way of reducing air pollution. With the billions of cars on the road around the world, more of us need to begin using public transport or finding cleaner ways to get around.
Finally, changing to a plant-based diet would also have a huge impact on reducing air pollution as well as reducing greenhouse gases linked to climate change. A change in diet also has the added benefit of reducing deforestation in tropical regions with trees creating cleaner air for us to breathe!