Smog-producing air pollution declining more slowly


268416998_4edb6382d2_b
Catalytic converters have decreased the amount of carbon monoxide emitted by cars dramatically since they were first introduced in the 1970s. (Chris Keating/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | May 1, 2018

A new study found that levels of two primary pollutants in the U.S. atmosphere have not been declining as rapidly during recent years as they once were.

Researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) studied satellite data and ground level measurements of two smog-forming pollutants: nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide. Levels of these air pollutants decreased dramatically following the implementation of the Clean Air Act in the 1970s. Requirements of that act pushed automakers and energy-producers to develop new technology which curbed the emissions of these two pollutants.

The study found that concentration of these two pollutants in the atmosphere decreased by seven percent each year between 2005 and 2009. However, from 2011 through 2015, the pollutants’ levels only shrunk by 1.7 percent annually.

Helen Worden is a scientist at NCAR and one of the study’s authors. She said to Phys Org, “Although our air is healthier than it used to be in the 80s and 90s, air quality in the U.S. is not progressing as quickly as we thought. The gains are starting to slow down.”

The study noted that the slower decrease in carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides was especially severe in the eastern part of the U.S. This finding dispels notions that the slower pace can be attributed to traveling air pollution from countries like China. The positive news is that the slower decline in carbon monoxide, which is primarily emitted by vehicles, is likely due to the fact that major strides have already been made to reduce vehicle emissions. In short, clean air technology related to cars may have reached a kind of plateau.

This study was funded by NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of Colorado Boulder, and the National Science Foundation. The full journal article can be found in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Scientists question EPA’s rollback of hazardous pollution regulation


20052567588_8c1a0c1c60_k
It is estimated that 9 of the 12 major sources of pollution in Iowa’s third congressional district will be reclassified under the EPA’s latest rollback. (Bill Dickinson/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | April 26, 2018

Scientists are concerned about the human and environmental health impacts of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recent decision to loosen regulations on toxic air pollutants.

The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 (CAAA) require major sources of hazardous air pollutants (HAP), or those pollutants suspected or known to cause cancer or other serious health effects, to use evidence-based pollution-control technologies to keep pollution below federal limits. These evidence-based pollution control technologies are also known as maximum achievable control technologies (MACT). Major sources are defined by the EPA as those facilities that emit more than 10 tons of any one HAP per year or more than 25 tons of a combination of HAP per year. Since then, the EPA has enforced the “once in, always in” policy, meaning that those sources that were regulated by the administration as “major sources,” would always be regulated by the administration under that classification. Until now.

In late January, Scott Pruitt’s EPA rolled back the “once in, always in” policy, thereby allowing major sources to become reclassified as “area source” polluters if they can show that they are emitting toxic air pollutants below the program’s threshold. If these sources are successfully reclassified, they will not be required to use MACT, which will likely make their emission reduction efforts less successful. To boot, hazardous air pollutants regulated by MACT measures include formaldehyde, chlorine and hydrochloric acid, none of which are safe for human inhalation, even in very small amounts.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, an independent research organization, created an interactive map to help U.S. citizens predict which parts of the country are most likely to be adversely impacted by the policy change. Scientists estimate that a minimum of 21 states will see more hazardous air pollution following the change. Low-income areas and communities of color are likely to suffer the most as a result. Their research predicts that 35 out of 41 facilities in Chicago could increase HAP emissions. Health effects associated with HAP emissions include cancer and respiratory illness, among others.

Gretchen Goldman is research director of the Center for Science and Democracy with the Union of Concerned Scientists. She made a statement on the organization’s webpage, “The EPA’s political leadership are ditching a successful policy and exposing more Americans to hazardous pollution.”

Users can view the likelihood that this policy change will affect air quality in their region using the interactive map provided here.

German court gives cities authority to ban diesel vehicles


501329333_d8dc996f8c_b
Munich is one of the German cities that routinely exceeds European Union NOx emission limits. (Vladimer Shioshvili/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | March 1, 2017

Germany’s federal court ruled on Tuesday that cities can ban diesel vehicles in order to lower air pollution.

Environmental Action Germany has been filing lawsuits against cities for years to encourage municipalities to implement policies that curb air pollution. German government statistics reveal that some 6,000 people die each year from nitrogen oxide pollution, 60 percent of which comes from vehicles on the road. Diesel engines in particular spew more NOx than gasoline engines and are more popular in Europe.

The ruling does not require communities to ban diesel driving, rather it grants them the legal authority to do so if air pollution in their city remains above the European Union limit for NOx in the air. Seventy German cities surpassed that threshold at least once last year.

Banning diesel vehicles would have negative implications for the country’s automotive industry. Since the ruling, the German government has proposed some measures to decrease pollution and avoid the ban, which include providing free public transportation and refitting existing diesel vehicles to meet clean air standards. However, it is unclear how the government would pay for such measures.

Germany is merely the latest country making a move away from diesel engines. Paris, Madrid, Mexico City and Athens have policies in place to ban diesel vehicles from city centers before 2025.

Simple way to recycle methane discovered


8203482486_822209e845_o.jpg
Methane flaring from a hydraulic fracking well in Pennsylvania. (WCN/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 9, 2018

Scientists have recently discovered a way to simply convert excess methane into the building blocks for plastics, agrochemicals and pharmaceuticals.

A study funded by the Department of Energy by researchers at the University of Southern California has identified a one-step chemical process to change methane into basic chemicals ethylene and propylene. Methane is known to be 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide, especially in terms of short-term greenhouse gas effects. The gas’ sources include hydraulic fracking wells, organic matter breaking down in landfills or large livestock operations.

The U.S. produces more methane than almost any other country, but the new research presents an opportunity to trap and use the gas. Currently, methane must be shipped via large pipelines from release points to processing areas in order to be converted into anything useful. The study’s authors point out that this practice is cost-prohibitive for many producers, but their research offers a solution. The one-step process means that methane can be captured on-site and transformed into ethylene and propylene without costly transportation.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who sued the agency several times before becoming its leader, has spoken about the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas in recent public addresses. He claims the agency will work to address the issue, but government spending plans say otherwise. A 2019 federal budget plan proposes a 72 percent funding cut for the Department of Energy renewable energy and energy efficiency program, the very same program that funded this study.

Coal plants closing at unprecedented rate


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
A coal plant spews pollutants on the Navajo reservation near Page, Arizona. (Photo Kent/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 2, 2018

Coal’s role in the U.S. energy picture is rapidly shrinking according to a report from the independent, non-profit Union of Concerned Scientists.

From 2008 to 2016, the portion of the U.S.’s energy derived from coal decreased from 51 percent to 31 percent. Of those coal units that are still up and running, about 25 percent of them plan to retire or switch to another energy source soon. While some coal units are retiring completely, many of them are switching to natural gas. Either way, the report found that the decreased coal production has provided the following environmental health benefits:

  • 80 percent less sulfur dioxide, a source of acid rain
  • 64 percent less nitrogen oxide, a key component in smog
  • 34 percent less carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas

Scientists estimate these changes have saved residents about $250 billion in public health costs related to breathing polluted air from 2008 to 2016.

The driving force behind coal’s decline is primarily economic. Natural gas is cheaper than the dirty fuel, and new research found that newly constructed wind and solar plants are more cost effective than new coal plants.

The researchers also looked at the challenges faced by economies in former coal-mining areas to learn more about how residents cope with closing plants. The results were decidedly mixed. For example, after one especially dirty plant in Chicago closed down following years of activism, area residents found that the city planned to redevelop the building into a transportation center–posing additional air quality risks. In contrast, an organization in West Virginia is working to train laid off coal-workers in construction, agriculture and solar energy jobs. As the shift to cleaner energy sources continues, the Union of Concerned Scientists call on lawmakers. They write,

“As more coal plants close, the importance of investing in these and other impacted communities will only grow. Policy makers should prioritize economic development and job transition assistance, alongside other investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency.”

On The Radio – United Nations Environment Programme seeks to tackle air pollution


ENVIRONMENT-AIR POLLUTION
The United Nations warned of the many human health impacts pollution poses. (United Nations/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | December 11, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses how the United Nations released an anthology with suggested methods for reducing pollution worldwide. 

Transcript: As global pollution increases, action is needed now more than ever. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

United Nations Environment Programme recently released The Executive Director’s Report: Towards A Pollution-Free Planet, an anthology that pulls environmental data from every continent and suggests general methods for reducing pollution globally. 

The report suggests that nobody is free from the effects of global pollution. Around one in four deaths globally are caused by environmental degradation, and governments must take action to reduce pollution in all its forms if they want to reduce the negative side effects of a damaged environment. 

Every aspect of global environmental damage must be examined and monitored, from waste disposal to the burning of fossil fuels. The people most effected by pollution are working class laborers in cities, since around 80% of big cities internationally do not meet the UN standards for clean air. 

Children, elderly and other vulnerable populations are disproportionately affected by air pollution. 

The statistics are sobering, but the report suggests that with better government control and a serious approach to pollution, we can all work together to better the environment and our health. 

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org. 

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone. 

On The Radio – Cumulative CO2 levels reach record high


4864425757_ab11f607fa_b
Carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere when fossil fuels, like coal, are combusted. (Kym Farnik/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | November 20, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses how carbon dioxide levels soared to record highs in 2016. 

Transcript: Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels rose to a record-high during 2016 according to the World Meteorological Organization.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The organization measures carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases at 51 sites around the globe. Average accumulated CO2 levels in Earth’s atmosphere reached 403.3 parts per million last year due to human activity and an El Niño weather event, which brought drought to much of the world’s CO2-capturing vegetation. Last year’s increase of CO2 was 50 percent higher than average year-to-year increases over the last ten years.

Scientists say that Earth has not had the same concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere since about three to five million years ago, when temperatures were two to three degrees Celsius warmer and sea levels were several dozen feet higher.

World Meteorological Organization scientists warn that greenhouse gas emissions should be cut drastically and immediately to avoid “dangerous temperature increases” by the end of the century.

For more information, visit Iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.