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10 Ways to Actually Improve the Air You Breathe

Unlike climate change, air pollution is hyper-local — and somewhat in your control

Credit: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

WeWe often speak of climate change and air pollution in one breath, but in fact, the two problems differ in significant ways. While carbon emissions from one country contribute to the changing climate globally, the same is not so true of air quality. There are some transboundary air quality issues, with one country’s pollution blowing over their borders into neighboring states, but for the most part, the pollution is hyper-local. The most dangerous particles are the smallest ones, nanoparticles, which only exist within meters of their source (typically traffic fumes). The lifespan of nitrogen dioxide is also typically no more than a day, and often much less, meaning it can’t get very far — you won’t find any in remote rural regions. Surface-level ozone is so highly reactive it can disappear within hours.

So, if you and your neighbors take certain preventative measures, you will breathe in cleaner air, irrespective of what your neighboring state does, or what countries on the other side of the world get up to. Even if you only convince the people on your street to follow these suggestions, while the rest of your town continues to pollute, the air on your street will be measurably cleaner than other, neighboring streets. And it just so happens that most of the measures to reduce outdoor air pollution tend to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and tackle climate change, too.

Urban air pollution is local, short-lived, and can be stopped at the source; the benefits are instant and dramatic.

Common refrains I come across are that “there is no one-size-fits-all solution,” and “of course this city is different.” But in fact, as my research progressed, a blueprint did emerge for a clean-air city, and I literally spell them out in my book. They include:

  • Before you burn anything — whether it’s fuel in a car or charcoal on a fire — ask yourself if you really need to, or if there is a viable zero-emissions alternative.
  • Try to walk, cycle, or use public transport rather than using cars for short journeys (and if you’re unfit or lazy, like me, consider an electric bicycle or scooter).
  • If you need to buy a car, check out the electric cars on the market (especially the second-hand electric and hybrid models) and the government grants available.
  • Switch your home energy supplier to one that offers 100% percent renewable electricity.
  • Consider making your own renewable heat or energy, such as solar panels or ground or air-sourced heating.
  • Do not — I repeat, do not — install a wood-burning stove, if you live in a built-up area, no matter how “eco” the marketing brochure claims it is.
  • Even if you live in a horribly polluted city, you can reduce your personal exposure. Walk or cycle on back streets rather than main roads. If you have to walk along a major road, walk on the building side of the pavement rather than the roadside curb to reduce your nanoparticle exposure.
  • If you live beside a busy road, or a pollution source such as a diesel railway or diesel generators, create your own green wall or green roof. There’s lots of advice online about how to do it, but a traditional privet or conifer hedge does a good job. Check out the government’s air quality measurements near you. Get an app that gives real-time air quality readings. Consider getting your own portable pollution monitor.
  • Start lobbying your local politicians to invest in bike lanes and electric buses, pedestrianize major shopping streets, plant more trees, and install green walls next to busy roads, schools, and hospitals. If they say they don’t have the budget, ask if they fine polluters and how that money is spent.
  • Tell others about the actions you’re taking.

Children growing up in towns and cities could do so alongside roads of electric vehicles and cycle lanes, live in homes powered by renewable energy, and breathe air almost entirely devoid of the pollution we take for granted today. This is an achievable vision. It is achievable right now in your city, in your town, in your back yard. Unlike climate change, there is no “2 degrees” scenario, no knowledge that “things are going to get worse whatever we do.” Urban air pollution is local, short-lived, and can be stopped at the source; the benefits are instant and dramatic. Whether this zero-emissions, low-carbon future happens in 10, 20, or 100 years, is down to public pressure and political will. It’s down to us.

Excerpted from Clearing the Air: The Beginning and the End of Air Pollution by Tim Smedley. Copyright © Tim Smedley. Published by Bloomsbury Sigma, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing. Reprinted with permission.

Environment & tech writer for the BBC, Guardian and others. First book ‘Clearing The Air’ was nominated for the Royal Society science book of the year, 2019.

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