Opinion: while we now know the damage air pollution and climate change cause, changing the situation requires some big battles

In 2014, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang first announced to the world that China was waging war against smog. The declaration meant that the country's policy of sacrificing the environment for the sake of economic growth was over. 

20 years ago, most people would have little understanding of the adverse impacts that air pollution and its inseparable partner climate change would have on our lives, especially with conditions like diabetes, dementia, stroke and asthma. Now, we know that the connection leads to premature deaths as well as signature weather events, food insecurity and biodiversity loss. The policy step that China proposed still represents the fundamental defence in winning the global environmental war that we are now getting into.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Luke Clancy from the Tobacco Free Research Institute Ireland discusses a new report on air quality and how people's health is effected due to climate change

But what are our possible plans of attack? Or should we just prepare for the worst? Is it really possible to change in a world driven by individual creature comfort, fossil fuel powered transport and the fundamental freedom to choose?

I am convinced that we would do much better in this area if we could only see the pollution directly as we travelled in towns and cities. Unfortunately, 90% of the particles coming from burning carbon are invisible to our eyes because they are too small for us to register. If they could be seen and resolved by installing 4K UHD eyes in all of us then the computer-generated picture generated from real-time air pollution data would be different.

Worried now? We need to recognise the importance of monitoring the various type of air pollutant (such as NOx, PM, ozone, ammonia and sulfur dioxide). Some countries are better at doing this than others. Ireland is finally getting better at it.

Commercial, industrial and domestic concerns are not the only battlefronts we face. Nature's own impact from bushfires and wildfires cannot be ignored, particularly when changes in our climate appear to be feeding them to extreme levels of dangerous activity. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Sarah O Connor from the Asthma Society of Ireland on a 2019 EPA report into air quality in Ireland and how 1,180 premature deaths are due to air pollution 

There are many causes for these fires including human stupidity in tinder-dry natural habitats, but lightning can strike too. That means large-scale biomass fires are a regular part of life, with life-changing wildfires (Malibu 2018) and bushfires (New South Wales 2019). Even in Ireland, we have seen extensive gorse fires (Galway 2017),

These headline-catching events are nature's big guns of air pollution, but it can act in more subtle ways too. For example, nature often influences the battleground itself particularly by a weather phenomenon called temperature inversion. There is possibly no greater contrast in living styles than Los Angeles and Enniscorthy, but they both are situated in a basin topography. When warm air rises and cold weather flows in at ground level, especially in low wind speed conditions, choking pollution events can occur. In LA, the main origin is the interaction between car/truck exhaust fumes and sunlight, while it is solid fuel (coal, wood, peat) burning in Enniscorthy. But the respiratory and cardio-condition end results are the same. 

Depending on where we live in the world then we might expect transport, heating, electrification and biomass burning to be somewhere in the frontline of the air raids reducing our quality of life. New Dehli is different from Brisbane and the pollutants are different because of the fuel sources, but hospital beds are filled in both places.

In fact, Australian atmospheric scientist Professor Lidia Morawska has taken the air raid analogy even further as a result of the recent bushfires. She has said that the suffocating smoke that cities like Sydney and Canberra are experiencing may require the building of air quality shelters across the country to protect the health of citizens. Letterkenny is unlikely to require a bunker in the near future to save its population from burning smoky coal and peat, but you never know. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, John Wenger from UCC's Centre for Research into Atmospheric Chemistry in the dramatic spike in air pollution levels in Letterkenny in December 2019

China's government have already provided the moral strategy for countries to beat air pollution and climate change on a macro-scale, but we can all help by using such guerrilla tactics as educational materials and slogans aimed at the general public, teachers, local politicians, students and neighbours. We can instigate some community and national messaging from the direct ("stop burning carbon fuels") to the witty ("idling gets you nowhere"). Try getting school principals you know to start a car-free day once a month. Remind neighbours down the pub that 90% of the particle releases from their wood-burning stoves gets into your living room and vice versa. 

Is the wartime analogy a bit too much?  Well... In 1943, in the middle of the Second World War, Los Angeles residents believed that the Japanese were attacking them using chemical warfare. A thick fog making eyes sting and noses run took hold of the city. Visibility was cut down to three city blocks. People put on gas masks; in fact, some did so for several years. 

As residents would later find out, the attack was not from another country but from their own vehicles and factories. Massive wartime immigration to a city built for road transport had made LA the largest car market the industry had ever seen. The photochemical smog was recognised and the research effort to understand much more about atmospheric chemistry was born, a necessary starting point for peace in our time.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ