90% of the World Breathes Polluted Air. Symbolic Emission Targets Aren’t Enough.

In the age of the Anthropocene, the simple act of taking a healthy breath has become a luxury. In spite of ongoing industry efforts to thwart elected officials into allowing for “business as usual” no matter the social and environmental toll, activists are no longer the only ones calling for dramatic drops in emissions: now, even corporate leaders and power companies have called on the Biden administration to commit to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

On Tuesday, the Biden administration signaled it plans to do just that. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, countries need to nearly halve emissions by 2030 to stay on track to keep warming below 1.5 Celsius, though many groups say the U.S. should commit to cutting emissions by 70 percent, given its disproportionate contributions. But the target is largely symbolic, and concrete domestic policies — like closing loopholes that allow fossil fuel companies to release toxic emissions at certain times — are needed to clean up the pollutants ravaging the climate and human health.

Each day, 9 out of 10 people across the world breathe polluted air as they work, catch sunshine on their stoops, prepare meals and even as they sleep. Shaina Oliver is an Indigenous peoples’ rights advocate and field organizer with Moms Clean Air Force, a group of 1 million mothers in the United States determined to protect children from air pollution and climate change. Oliver, who was born in Navajo Nation in Shiprock, New Mexico, was diagnosed with asthma as an infant. Now, she told Truthout, she can’t sleep without an air purifier in her bedroom. Residents of Shiprock have been exposed to poor outdoor air quality on account of atmospheric conditions that trap plumes of emissions from nearby coal-fired power plants, in combination with poor indoor air quality related to the burning of coal for heat.

Later in life, Oliver and her family found out she had been born with a slew of congenital medical issues that resulted in hearing and speech difficulties. “Many of my people are impacted by these same disparities and are being told that these disparities are genetic traits,” Oliver said on an April 15 panel hosted by Moms Clean Air Force and the National Tribal Air Association (NTAA). “Our people know these health disparities are caused by contamination related to the industries that have encroached into our reservations where our treaty rights are abused.”

More than 50 years ago, when the Clean Air Act of 1970 was passed, it required state and federal governments in the U.S. to collaborate for the first time on clearing the skies by requiring the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set limits on ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and lead, many of which we now know contribute to the climate emergency and harm human health. Amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990, or “good neighbor” requirements, instructed the EPA to hold states accountable for preventing air pollution generated in their jurisdiction that might drift downwind across state lines, dirtying air many miles away.

But the gains have not been linear or comprehensive. After declining 27 percent from 2009 to 2016, the annual average level of asthma-triggering particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5) increased by 5.7 percent between 2016 and 2018, according to a 2021 study by Carnegie Mellon University researchers. Wildfires likely contributed to the increase, as did lackluster enforcement during former President Trump’s first two years in office. The increase in PM2.5 — which is smaller than 1/30 the width of a human hair and thus able to enter organs, including the brain, through the bloodstream — resulted in 9,700 additional premature deaths, according to the study.

Another study published July 2020 in the journal Science shows that advancements in pollution control are not happening equitably in terms of spatial distribution. The groups of people who were most exposed to pollution in 1981 are largely the same groups who were most exposed in 2016, the authors explain. “More populated, whiter, higher income, and less Hispanic areas at baseline in 1981 are associated with reductions in [PM2.5 percentile ranking levels] over time,” the study explains; while poorer, less white and less educated census tracts saw increases in percentile ranking over the same years.

On tribal lands, such as the part of New Mexico where Oliver was born, ongoing disparities are in part attributable to a failure of federal and state governments to honor treaties that require free, prior and informed consent of tribal governments before permitting industrial projects, and a lack of adequate funding, Oliver said, pointing out that “what happens to tribal communities affects all communities.”

The Clean Air Act specifies that tribes be treated as states in carrying out clean air programs. But according to the NTAA, a coalition of tribal governments that works closely with the EPA to advance air quality management, the EPA’s strategic plan and budget for fiscal year 2020-21 included “little to no indication of support” for tribal air priorities, such as a desire for indoor air quality monitoring programs and addressing climate change. The plan also failed to address concerning decreases in funding for some tribes.

Given ongoing disparities, individuals and organizations have taken it upon themselves to do what they can to clean up the air. Haven Coleman is a 15-year-old climate activist who organized the first weekly climate strikes in the U.S. in early 2019. Coleman lives in Denver, Colorado, which ranks in the 10 most ozone-polluted U.S. cities, according to the American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air report. Ozone, the main ingredient in smog, forms as a result of a chemical reaction when volatile organic compounds mix with nitrous oxide in the presence of sunlight. Ozone often shows up downwind from where the original pollutants were emitted, and is a powerful lung irritant.

For Coleman’s 15th birthday, she launched a GoFundMe aiming to raise $15,000 to purchase air purifier kits for households where wildfire smoke and other emissions occur near the state’s remaining coal plants and oil refineries. “It shouldn’t be up to fundraisers to deal with structural crises like this, but as we push for government action to reduce pollution at source, communities need cleaner air right now,” Coleman explained on the fundraiser’s homepage.

In many U.S. cities and towns, access to granular, neighborhood-level data is still lacking, and relying on broad calculations, like average PM2.5 levels across full states or cities, obscures the impacts of harmful exposure to residents on a certain street. San Francisco-based Aclima, a public benefit corporation that makes air quality sensors and uses its own fleet of Google street view cars to measure air pollution on a block-by-block basis, set out in 2015 to change that. A March 2021 study using Aclima’s data found a near-40-fold difference from neighborhood to neighborhood in the Bay Area. In West Oakland, the study found, half of childhood asthma cases are linked to nitrogen dioxide from traffic-related air pollution, in comparison with only one in five cases of childhood asthma in the predominantly white Oakland Hills. Understanding these inequities is key to eliminating them, Susan Anenberg, professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University, told Popular Science.

In April, Aclima announced it would add seven new advisors to its board, including leading environmental justice figures Peggy Shepard, co-founder of WE ACT; Heather McTeer Toney, former southeast regional administrator for the EPA and director of political organizing for Moms Clean Air Force; and University of Maryland professor Sacoby Wilson. “This is a unique opportunity to help the business sector do more to address environmental injustice instead of how many in the sector cause environmental injustice,” Wilson said in a statement.

Still, neither individuals nor private companies are capable of coordinating the vast scale of change needed to avert the most dangerous impacts of the climate emergency, which include the worsening of human health. Luckily, researchers and environmental and climate advocates have plenty of ideas for what the Biden administration can do next.

For the first time since it began publishing an annual air quality analysis 22 years ago, the American Lung Association specifically names transitioning away from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy and zero-emissions transportation as priorities in a brand new “what needs to be done” section of its 2021 State of the Air report, released today. The Center for Biological Diversity and 350.org want the EPA to set a greenhouse gas pollution cap. Another coalition of 95 environmental groups including the Coalition for a Safe Environment in Los Angeles, and Texas Environmental Justice Advisory Services, says the Biden administration should close a loophole that allows polluting facilities to release unlimited quantities of air pollution that far exceed Clean Air Act limits during startup, shutdown and malfunction incidents. According to the legal petition, 63 million pounds of illegal air pollution was released from Texas facilities in 2019 during routine “breakdown” events.

“For every moment our country delays response to this emergency, we become more and more responsible for the business livelihoods lost and families destroyed because we failed to act when we had both science and fact to back our actions,” former EPA Southeast Regional Administrator Heather McTeer Toney said in an April 15 hearing before the U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. “There are so many overlaps of social justice inequities and climate such that inaction is inconceivable.”