Non-renewable energy sources — primarily fossil fuels like coal, natural gas and oil — have a serious impact on the environment. Some of the most significant impacts these non-renewables have is on air quality — especially in communities near power plants that burn fossil fuels.
This is how the wide-scale adoption of renewable energy could lead to cleaner, healthier air around the world.
1. Reducing Fine Particulate Matter
Adoption of renewables would also provide a significant and easy-to-notice change by immediately reducing particulate matter produced by fossil fuel-burning power plants.
This fine particulate matter, like black carbon along with other fossil fuel-produced pollutants, can have major health impacts. Black carbon alone, for example, is implicated in 640,000 to 4,900,000 premature deaths each year.
Switching to renewable energy sources that don’t emit pollutants — like solar and wind power — could have an almost immediate impact on air quality by halting the production of these particles.
While some renewable energy sources — like biomass and geothermal power — do emit air pollutants, they do so at a much lower rate than coil- or gas-fired power plants. Even the “worst” renewable energy source would have a big impact if we adopted it at scale.
With the right technology and public policies, we could reduce fine particulate matter in the atmosphere and prevent hundreds of thousands or millions of premature deaths every year.
2. Preventing Stagnation Events
Particle pollutants don’t just directly impact air quality. Over time, they contribute to climate change, leading to hotter summers that can make air quality even worse.
Recent climate research has found that warming summer temperatures can lead to an increase of what meteorologists call stagnation events — pockets of stale, hot air that trap pollutants and lock them into the lower atmosphere.
Slowing climate change with renewables could help prevent some of these stagnation events by reducing the potential impact of ozone and other pollutants already in the atmosphere.
3. Lower Levels of Aeroallergens
Naturally occurring particles — such as aeroallergens like ragweed pollen — can be just as bad for local air quality as black carbon and other pollutants released by burning fossil fuels.
There’s research indicating that fossil fuel-induced climate change could make these problems worse, both by extending pollen season and increasing the amount of pollen plants produce.
For everyone — especially those with allergies — the impacts of climate change could make certain areas of the world significantly less livable.
With renewables, we could prevent these longer, more productive pollen seasons and avoid the serious consequences they could have for air quality.
4. Cutting Down on Ozone Production
Burning fossil fuels produces nitrogen oxides (NOx), some of the main chemical precursors to ozone — another pollutant that can have a major negative impact on air quality.
When determining an area’s air quality index (AQI), researchers use air-quality testing technology like personal air monitors and summa canisters for concentrations of fine particulate matter and other pollutants that can have major health impacts.
Like black carbon, researchers often look for ozone levels because of the major health issues the pollutant can cause — like lung damage, infections and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
In the same way that renewables can help reduce black carbon production, they’ll also help cut down on the production of nitrogen oxides — and air ozone levels as a result.
5. More Frequent Fog and Rain
Certain weather conditions can improve air quality. Fog and rain, especially, are known for their ability to “clear out” the atmosphere by trapping pollutants and pulling them out of the air.
Preventing the worst effects of climate change could help reverse this fog reduction, leading to clearer skies in the long term.
Adopting Renewable Energy Could Boost Our Air Quality
Burning fossil fuels has a major impact on the environment — both in the short term and the long run. Air pollutants can hurt lung health, while greenhouse gas accumulation contributes to climate change, which can significantly compromise air quality.
Renewables can help solve both these short- and long-term air quality problems. By switching to solar, wind and other sources of clean energy, we can improve our air quality and potentially reverse climate change.
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