Air pollution has far-reaching impacts. It both causes and exacerbates a wide range of health conditions, and is responsible for an estimated seven million premature deaths each year. Particulate matter refers to airborne particles of liquid or solid matter with a diameter of ten micros or less. Most other air pollutants are gasses including carbon monoxide, ground-level ozone (also called tropospheric ozone), nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and methane. Ground-level ozone, toxic to plants, reduces agricultural productivity and is harmful to ecosystems. Other pollutants, including nitrogen and sulfur, also pose a threat to ecosystems and biodiversity. Most of the pollutants which impair air quality also contribute to climate change. For these reasons and others, air pollution has a significant economic cost.
Globally the main sources of air pollution stem from energy generation (25%), industry (21%), transportation (14%), and agriculture (24%) – the first three primarily from their reliance on burning fossil fuels, and the last from both the production of methane and other pollutant gases, and from detrimental practices such as stubble burning and deforestation. Other sources include wildfires and burning solid waste, usually in landfills. An additional issue is indoor air pollution which can come from cleaning products, mold, dust, and appliances that burn natural gas. Around 1 billion people worldwide lack regular and reliable access to electricity, and rely on combustion technologies for heating, lighting, and cooking.
There are several key issues to consider surrounding air quality, pollution, and regulation. At present, much of global industry and transportation infrastructure relies on burning fossil fuels for power. The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy requires financial investment as well as cooperation from private companies, governments, and individual people; this can pose economic challenges in areas still developing their energy or industrial infrastructure. Furthermore, emissions are not proportional by country – as of 2017, the top 6 CO2 emitters produced 70% of the world’s carbon emissions. Many key air pollutants come from a number of sources, and without addressing each root cause any solution is likely to have more limited effectiveness. Furthermore, while air pollution typically has its most significant impact near the polluting source, pollutants can be carried for long distances in the atmosphere. Many countries lack robust systems for monitoring air quality, and may only have monitoring sites in large cities given that monitoring equipment can be costly and require regular maintenance. Another matter for consideration is how air quality data should be shared, both in terms of the public and the scientific community..
1. What is the role of air quality standards and regulations?
2. How can or should the global community expedite a transition to renewable energy sources and sustainable agricultural practices?
3. What are the different air quality challenges faced by rural vs urban communities? How can these be addressed?
4. To what extent is air pollution a national issue to be addressed individually by member states versus a global issue requiring international action and cooperation?