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Unit 11: Atmospheric Pollution // Section 9: Controlling Air Pollution

Thanks to several decades of increasingly strict controls, emissions of most major air pollutants have declined in the U.S. and other industrialized countries since the 1970s. Figure 15 shows the aggregate decrease in U.S. emissions since 1970. This trend occurred even as economic activity and fuel consumption increased. The reductions came about because governments passed laws limiting allowable pollution levels and required the use of technologies to reduce emissions, such as scrubbers on power plant smokestacks and catalytic converters on vehicles.

U.S. Economic Growth and Criteria Pollutant Emissions, 1970-2006

Figure 15. U.S. Economic Growth and Criteria Pollutant Emissions, 1970-2006
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Source: Courtesy United States Environmental Protection Agency.

This decrease in emissions has demonstrably reduced levels of the four principal primary pollutants: carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and lead. Air quality standards for these four pollutants were frequently exceeded in the U.S. twenty years ago but are hardly ever exceeded now.

Progress in reducing the two principal secondary pollutants, ozone and particulate matter, has been much slower. This is largely due to nonlinear chemistry involved in the generation of these pollutants: reducing precursor emissions by a factor of two does not guarantee a corresponding factor of two decrease in the pollutant concentrations (the decrease is often much less, and there can even be an increase). In addition, advances in health-effects research have generated constant pressure for tougher air quality standards for ozone and fine aerosols.

In contrast to improvements in developed countries, air pollution has been worsening in many industrializing nations. Beijing, Mexico City, Cairo, Jakarta, and other megacities in developing countries have some of the dirtiest air in the world (for more on environmental conditions in megacities, see Unit 5, "Human Population Dynamics"). This situation is caused by rapid population growth combined with rising energy demand, weak pollution control standards, dirty fuels, and inefficient technologies. Some governments have started to address this problem—for example, China is tightening motor vehicle emission standards—but much stronger actions will be required to reduce the serious public health impacts of air pollution worldwide.

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