While air pollution is a serious problem, it is a problem that we can solve! In the United States and around the world, people are taking action to reduce emissions and improve air quality.

The Clean Air Act: How Laws Can Help Clean Up the Air

Creating policies and passing laws to restrict air pollution has been an important step towards improving air quality. In 1970, fueled by persistent visible smog in many U.S. cities and industrial areas and an increase in health problems caused by air pollution, the Clean Air Act paved the way for numerous efforts to improve air quality in the United States. The Clean Air Act requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set air quality standards for several hazardous air pollutants reported in the Air Quality Index (AQI), requires states to have a plan to address air pollution and emissions reduction, and also addresses problems such as acid rain, ozone holes, and greenhouse gas pollution which is causing the climate to warm.

Since the Clean Air Act was passed:

  • The amounts of the six common pollutants in the atmosphere measured by the EPA (particulates, ozone, lead, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide) are declining.
  • The risks of premature death, low birth weight, and other health problems due to air pollution have decreased.
  • Vehicle emissions have decreased, despite increases in the number of miles driven each year, due to stricter emissions standards and increased efficiency in vehicle engines.
  • Emissions and toxic pollutants (such as mercury and benzenes) from factories and power plants have decreased, due to new technologies.
  • There is less acid rain, due to decreased power plant emissions.
  • The ozone hole continues to shrink in size as a result of banning the use of CFCs.
  • Pollution-caused haze in cities and wilderness areas has decreased.

Source: EPA

Most industrialized countries have laws and regulations about air quality. The United Kingdom first passed its Clean Air Act in 1956 following a deadly smog event that killed many London residents. In China, where rapid industrial and urban growth in recent decades resulted in a sharp decrease in air quality, numerous laws about air pollution have been passed, including a frequently updated five-year national plan to meet target reductions in air pollution.

It is important to note that while laws and regulations are helping, the effects of air pollution are still apparent. The decline of toxic air pollutants and health improvements are welcome changes, yet the increasing threat of climate change due to fossil fuel emissions remains a problem that still needs to be solved.

There are many solutions to air pollution

In order to improve air quality and slow climate warming, change needs to happen on a national and global scale. But actions at the individual and community level are also important.

  • Burn less coal. Pollution from burning all fossil fuels is harmful to the atmosphere. But, burning coal has a larger impact on air pollution than burning oil or gas because it releases more carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and heavy metal pollutants per unit of energy. Also, over one-third of the electricity produced in the world comes from burning coal. As of 2014, the global demand for coal is beginning to decline. In North America, coal plants are being replaced by natural gas. Some countries, such as Japan and South Korea, rely more on nuclear energy, and there is a global increase in electricity supplied by clean, renewable sources--wind, solar, and water.
  • Lessen the impact of cars. Cars and vehicles create exhaust full of carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and other pollutants. Driving less, in favor of public transportation, biking, or walking, helps decrease air pollution. Also, using cars with increased fuel efficiency or electric cars that do not rely on fossil fuels can decrease the amount of pollution we are contributing to the atmosphere. When you use your car, keep the engine tuned and the tires properly inflated to decrease fuel consumption. Whenever possible, take fewer trips by combining errands. Many cities are helping by investing in better, affordable public transportation and developing city plans that include infrastructure for walking, biking, and public transit.
  • Credit: UCAR

  • Conserve energy--at home, work, and everywhere! The demand for electricity, which is most often produced from burning fossil fuels, has grown exponentially over the past decades. Conserve energy by turning off lights, buy appliances rated for energy efficiency, and keep the thermostat set higher in the summer and lower in the winter. Whenever possible, invest in renewable energy sources to power your home. Several countries are using renewables, nuclear, or lower emission sources like natural gas to meet their increasing power demand. And many countries plan to significantly increase their use of renewable energy sources in the future.
  • Monitor air quality warnings, and take action on poor air quality days. On days when pollution levels are high, taking action can help reduce the risk of harm to those who are most vulnerable. Reducing overall car usage, and avoiding idling your car can help on days with high levels of ozone pollution. Save refueling and use of gas-powered yard equipment for the evening when it is cooler and ozone levels are lower. On days when particle pollutants are high, avoid burning yard waste and wood. Choosing to carpool or using a clean transportation method is always helpful, especially on days with high levels of air pollution. Check on the air quality in your area at the AirNow website.
  • Take action within your community to find solutions to air pollution. Around the world, many of the current solutions are the result of communities coming together to demand change. Citizens in Shenzhen, China, inspired a switch to electric buses in their city. In Brussels, Belgium, a movement started by parents concerned about poor air quality in schools, led to a plan to invest in public transportation and cycling, along with a ban on fueled cars by 2030. And in many countries, governments are closing coal plants and exploring new sources of energy because of citizens who are concerned about climate warming.

Check out the EPA's website to learn more about actions you can take to reduce air pollution.