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Vol. 10 No. 1 - January 2004

Air Quality Research and Education:

An International Perspective*

(A Commentary)

By: S.V. KRUPA

*The author is grateful to the APS Press for the publication of an earlier version of this article in “Air Pollution, People and Plants: An Introduction” (1997).

As socio-political and economic conflicts continue to escalate at the global scale, so too is the level of our awareness of the needs to conserve energy, reduce air pollutant emissions, and protect human health and welfare (the environment) against the adverse effects of poor air quality. However, the traditional view of addressing one environmental issue at a time (acidic rain, ozone, etc.) is largely intact. This compartmentalized view is primarily a product of our inability to address the integrative processes and products of the atmosphere as a whole and their impacts on life and material at the surface. Clearly this limitation is due to the technical complexity and major financial support required to conduct the needed studies. A second limitation is the critical requisite to assemble and develop cooperation among scientists representing many scientific disciplines. In this context, because of the competitive nature of securing funding for research, scientists in the U.S. and elsewhere in Europe continue to operate on a disciplinary basis, addressing single issues such as elevated levels of CO2, O3 , UV-B radiation or atmospheric deposition of nitrogen. Environmental issues such as “acidic precipitation” and “tree decline” have been used to conduct numerous fragmented research studies, ending in indecisive and/ or less than dramatic results. In comparison, with the rise of democratic governance in many countries previously ruled by communistic principles and the present openness in those nations, evidence is starting to indicate that human populations may have been exposed for years to relatively high concentrations of various toxic chemicals in the atmosphere (complex, persistent organic pollutants, trace metals, etc.) and through their accumulation in consumed plant products.

There are clear examples of the adverse effects of poor air quality on human health (e.g., particulate matter) and the environment (e.g., ozone). Conversely, at least for the moment, there is evidence that increases in the concentrations of certain atmospheric constituents, for example CO2, can benefit agronomic ecosystems, when other growth regulating factors (e.g., nutrients) are not limiting. In contrast, such elevated CO2 levels can adversely impact fragile ecosystems such as the tussock tundra. There is also evidence to show that elevated levels of CO2 and O3 combined can offset their respective beneficial and negative effects on plants. Such outcomes are not at all understood when other growth regulating factors are considered. Thus, there is a need for a holistic understanding of the complex and dynamic interactions between the multiple factors of the real world and sensitive subjects responsive to poor air quality. It is important to realize that simply because many of us look for the simplest answer to complex real world problems, it does not necessarily mean nature must cooperate. Because of this, as long as we approach integrative environmental problems with tunnel vision, we will continue to state the frequent conclusion “more research is needed” to understand the problem and the corresponding solution. This highlights the conflict between those who believe in, “wait and see, because we need more data” and those who believe in, “why wait until a measurable human health or environmental impact occurs; control the potential cause now”. Cost-benefit tradeoffs represent a critical underpinning in this controversy.

Mitigation: Mitigation has been the most frequently used approach after the fact, to improve air quality. In general this approach is very costly from an economic perspective and thus, cost-benefit tradeoffs have played a major role. Air pollutant emission control technology and their application have essentially been the result of environmental laws or legislation, themselves a consequence of scientific and/or public pressure. At the present time emission controls are largely in use in developed countries. Developing nations have not readily embraced this view due to the significant population growth in those countries, poor standards of living and economic pressure.

Although at the present time developed countries like the USA are the largest emitters of chemical constituents such as CO2 on a per capita basis, future environmental laws may restrict such emissions through mitigation. In contrast, as we move forward in the 21st century, developing nations may assume the role as major emitters of air pollutants. An example in question is the increasing ozone problem in the Valley of Mexico over the last two decades and the converse decline in ozone in the Los Angeles area over the same period. Similarly, in my presentation at ICPEP (International Conference on Plants and Environmental Pollution)-2, Lucknow, India (2002), I showed satellite radiation (light) reflectance imagery from NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, US) demonstrating smog over the entire northeast India. There are many other comparable examples.

Adaptation: Improvement of air quality through adaptation to modified lifestyles is in general an approach practical to developed nations, but has not always been successful. A prerequisite to the strategy of adaptation is “environmental literacy”. While mitigation involves a specific source or sources, adaptation requires entire societies to change lifestyles. For example, using more energy efficient lamps and indoor climate control systems across all individual homes, businesses, etc., would reduce energy demand and thus, lessen power production. Adaptation can only be effective if the required change is practiced across the board. Public respond to monitory incentives and in the US, energy industry has attempted to use such an approach to attract public attention. In contrast, as with mitigation, due to economic pressures and environmental illiteracy, adaptation has not been successfully tested in developing countries. In many urban centers in developed nations, significant progress is underway to deploy mass transit systems. Such systems are prohibitively expensive for developing nations, particularly if the infrastructure is unsuitable. Most importantly, a problematic approach is practiced in developing countries, where for example, automobiles from the 1950s and the 1960s (use leaded gasoline) are still in operation through continued repair of essential mechanical parts. This is a reality. Most disconcertingly, there is a similar, but sophisticated problem in the US. Use of Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs) by the public is on an exponential rise. At the moment these vehicles are classified as trucks and thus do not have to conform to the emission standards of a sedan. By their size alone and standing high above the road, they are not only a hazard to people driving traditional automobiles like myself, they also emit 7% more CO2 than a regular car. There has been little, if any effort in the US to educate the public regarding this problem, likely because of the profitability of the private sector. However, because of increasing backlash about traffic safety, now the manufacturers have expressed intent to lower the height of those (new) vehicles, but not necessarily their emissions, although regulatory pressure is mounting as in California.

Prevention: Prevention is better than cure. Particularly in the U.S., “pollution prevention” has been the theme of the 1990s. Pollution prevention requires changes in process technology. A simple example involves brick manufacturing. Conventional production of “bright red” brick can result in the emission of gaseous, toxic hydrogen fluoride gas. The manufacturing of “whitish-pink” bricks that contain high levels of calcium or an alkali would essentially absorb the hydrogen fluoride, although the color or the salability of such bricks has not gained public acceptance. However, resolving one type of problem can contribute to another environmental issue of concern. Use of oxygenated fuels (e.g., ethanol mixed with gasoline) would lead to more complete fuel combustion and thus, reduced carbon monoxide (toxic to humans and animals), but increased carbon dioxide (a greenhouse or global warming gas) emissions from automobiles. These types of contradictory phenomena can cause difficulties in the strategies applied in “pollution prevention”. Yet, significant and successful progress has been made in implementing “pollution prevention”, particularly in the chemical manufacturing industry. Because of the types of complexities described as examples, pollution prevention not only requires significant advances in production technology, but also vast economic resources in making the needed changes. Again, these considerations limit its global scale applicability at the present time.

POOR AIR QUALITY AND HUMAN HEALTH

In the past there have been disastrous air quality episodes and human mortality (e.g. the London fog, 1952; Bhopal, India, 1984). Such examples have been somewhat rare but not absent in the recent times. Nevertheless, the chronic effects of poor urban air quality on human health continue to be a major issue as our knowledge of the subject grows. Photochemical smog, toxic metals and organic pollutants occupy a central theme. While Los Angeles smog prevails, urban pollution (including smog, particulate matter and lead emissions from mobile sources) has reached critical levels at locations such as Manila in the Philippines. Some 30% of the citizens of Manila are known to suffer from bronchial problems and asthma and blood levels of lead that are disconcertingly high. Recent evidence suggests that PM (particulate matter).10 (less than 10 µm size) levels above 42 g per m3 can be related to increased human mortality. Problems similar to Manila most likely occur in other urban centers in the developing nations, but remain inadequately studied. The control of particulate matter from stationary sources, use of catalytic converters and unleaded gasoline in automobiles and efforts to implement effective mass transit systems in the urban centers of developed nations have provided some relief to those locations. Such strategies require stringent environmental laws, economic resources, environmental literacy and societal adaptation. These represent critical limiting factors in their successful application in developing nations at the present time.

GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE VERSUS GLOBAL CHANGE

Particularly over the last decade outstanding progress has been made in our understanding of the sources and sinks of chemical constituents in the atmosphere. Although many uncertainties remain, the traditional separatist view of the physical and chemical climatology is rapidly merging. Some atmospheric constituents such as methane have significant contributions from natural sources, while others such as the chlorofluorocarbons are totally a consequence of human activities. Future increases in the concentrations of these and other radiative or greenhouse trace gases are predicted to result in global warming.

Although the issue of how much warming will occur, by when and where is a highly controversial subject, increases in the concentrations of many of the atmospheric chemical constituents alone, their possible role in the destruction of the beneficial stratospheric ozone layer, consequent potential increases in the deleterious ultraviolet-B radiation at the surface, are all factors in “global climate change”. In as much as human activity is known to be the major driving factor for the predicted “global climate change”, such a change will affect our lifestyles in the future and thus, our impact on climate. Thus, there is a bi-directional feedback between the so-called “global climate change” and the society. Therefore, it is more appropriate to view the overall issue as “global change” rather than “global climate change”. Future reductions that are needed in population size are a critical component of global change. World food supply and demand will be a critical determinant in that context.

SURPLUS VERSUS DEFICIT FOOD SUPPLY

At the present time in the U.S., there is a surplus of food supply (total area of crops harvested [ha] per capita during 2001, US = 0.48; India = 0.19 and the world = 0.21), although such a supply is not distributed uniformly across all sectors of the population due to political and societal reasons. In contrast, although much progress has been made in agricultural production in developing countries, continued population growth, socio-political conflicts and inefficient or corrupt distribution systems have contributed to a lack of uniform food supply across all sectors in those countries. Thus, starvation is rampant in some parts of the world, as in some African nations. It is expected that the situation will be clearly affected further under global climate change. Continued increases in the atmospheric concentrations of CO2 alone will require increased nutrient supply to sustain crop production and quality. For example, under that scenario, phosphate fertilizer is already considered to be a limiting factor in some parts of Africa. Similarly, resource demand as a whole for crop production is expected to increase and this again, most likely will affect food production in developing countries. Elevated atmospheric CO2 levels coupled with any increases in air temperature and other growth regulating factors is bound to alter the incidence of plant disease and insect pests. We have very little knowledge of these processes. If climatic changes occur slowly, plant breeders most likely can compensate for it. However, as accelerated plant breeding continues, genetic diversity relative to the wild species or type will be progressively compressed, to a point where the magnitude of success may gradually decline (law of diminishing returns). This simply means, certain crops grown in certain geographic areas may have to be replaced by others. For example, the corn-belt in the U.S. being replaced by grain sorghum, possibly due to increased air temperature and limitation of soil moisture.

The overall prediction is that developed nations will have to adjust and increase their food production in the future to compensate for any corresponding decline and increasing demand in the developing countries. In that context, a controversial aspect is the development and deployment of genetically modified organisms that has not gained global acceptance for a variety of reasons.

BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY

Although over decades ecologists have raised significant concerns about the declines in the populations of certain flora and fauna, air quality and global climate change have provided another dimension to the issue. Dramatic shifts in biological diversity have frequently been a product of direct human intervention (e.g., continued deforestation of the Amazon and the rain forests in Guatemala). Excessive atmospheric inputs of nitrogen (mainly as ammonia (-um) have resulted in the invasion and overgrowth of the Heather moors by tall grass, in the Netherlands. There is also evidence that forest ecosystems in N. America and Europe are suffering from nitrogen saturation due to excess atmospheric deposition, with adverse ecological consequences. Similarly, future increases in atmospheric CO2 concentrations most likely could result in shifts in competition between C3 and C4 plants in mixed communities. Such shifts will alter the composition of native ecosystems and reduce biological diversity (both producers and consumers). In essence some species may disappear completely. Since there are feedbacks between various components in an ecosystem, loss of biodiversity will lead to altered ecosystems. The Endangered Species Act in the U.S. and similar laws in other nations protect flora and fauna against direct human abuse. However, such laws on occasions more often than desirable, lead to conflicts within and between nations when they involve cultural and economic questions or differences in philosophy relative to environmental issues.

ENVIRONMENTAL LITERACY

Environmental literacy requires a unique combination of knowing unbiased scientific facts and using them in a rational manner. Here, a little knowledge can be more dangerous than no knowledge. Although scientists contribute to the knowledge base in a technical sense, the media bring such information to attention for public and political response. Environmental, including air quality, issues frequently stimulate emotions, which can be difficult to separate from scientific facts, because of the rightful public concern for human health and welfare. Here, risk perception and the actual risk can be very difficult to separate. Even when the two phenomena are separated, public acceptance of the facts could fail, if emotions outweigh science. In some societies, industry sponsored research may not receive public acceptance, because of a historical distrust for such information, even if it is correct. Traditionally many profit-driven industries have sponsored defensive or reactive rather than proactive research. That has been one of the reasons for public distrust in such research. There needs to be a concerted effort to develop significant mutually beneficial collaboration among institutions in the public and private sectors.

In contrast, environmental literacy in the developing nations is directly correlated to lifestyles and a basic lack of education. Here, population growth, illiteracy, economics, poor food supply and need for decent shelter outweigh environmental concerns. In addition to the abuse of available natural sources, uncontrolled use of chemicals and poor industrial technology and operation are critical concerns. Although mitigation through political pressure and economic and technology transfer are possible in these cases, adaptation that requires environmental literacy is not expected to totally succeed at the present time in those cases.

A completely different analysis is needed for those countries that have changed from socialistic to democratic governance. Here, the required science is available, at least in theory, but the pressures of economics and the adaptation to market-driven lifestyles are retarding factors. Another limiting aspect is the lack of full knowledge of subtle, but complex air quality issues (e.g., toxic chemicals), since air pollutant emissions have occurred in these countries unabated over decades and their ambient concentrations have not always been monitored in a scientifically defensible fashion.

INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION

International cooperation does not necessarily mean sharing wealth, although some developing countries have used this as a prerequisite for improving environmental conservation. While this may be partly true, global environmental conservation requires sharing of knowledge through education, technology transfer and on site remediation. It is important to note that in general, many developing nations have highly reputable and competent scientists. These individuals simply need opportunities and resources to apply their science and more importantly, peers to communicate with, on the scene. There is nothing better than local solutions to local problems, since these have a better chance of succeeding through local social acceptance. Personally, such experiences have been some of the most rewarding aspects of my career over the last three decades.

There are a number of international agencies striving to deal with global scale environmental problems. They include: (a) The World Bank; (b) The United Nations Environmental Program; (c) The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization; (d) The World Health Organization; and (e) various international institutions, such as the Commission of the European Communities, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. There are many other similar organizations.

A disturbing fact, however, is the recent shifts in aid from developing countries to others.

Such changes are driven by short-term socio-political considerations. Nevertheless, in the long-term sharing of knowledge and education are sustainable commodities and that is where academic professionals can have a critical role at the global scale. For example, in as much as the “Peace Corps” in the U.S. and similar programs elsewhere have contributed significantly to humanity across the world over decades, there is a clear need for a similar program(s) of environmental conservation. In this case it would require participation of environmental scientists from many nations and economic support from such nations.

At the present time mitigation or on site remediation is largely in the domain of the private sector in developed nations. Such efforts need to be coupled with improving environmental literacy. An ideal approach to achieving optimal success will require cooperation between the academic community and private sector. There is much room for improvement. In some countries such as Canada, governmental sponsorships of environmental research are greatly improved if academic communities can demonstrate cooperation with the private sector and potential economic or societal benefits to be obtained through technology transfer. We clearly need more of those types of considerations.

THE LIMITATIONS?

Air quality as well as climate change issues are embedded in the conflict between environment and development. Many of the as yet unresolved global problems such as population explosion, underdevelopment, poverty and hunger are currently escalating, a phenomenon also reflected by increasing environmental destruction.

About 80% of global energy-related emissions of radiatively active trace gases is currently caused by 15% of the world population. Energy consumption in the industrialized nations of the North has reached an all time high. The per capita energy consumption in the developing countries is a fraction (between about 1/10 and 1/40) of what is used in the industrialized nations. It is foreseeable in the future, the developing countries (as they follow the industrialization path of the developed nations) will play a much greater role with regard to the change in our air quality and climate. Such impact of the developing countries on the chemical and physical climate would be due to more than just industrialization. The destruction of the environment in these countries (e.g., tropical deforestation and the conversion of deforested areas into farmland) is due to poverty. Furthermore, since there are no other affordable fuels and no working energy supply systems, forests are cut down in order to obtain firewood as a free and essential source of energy. The situation is dramatically aggravated by the population explosion currently observed in these countries. As a result, the environmental resources will increasingly be overused.

Scientific and technological progress in the industrialized nations tends to accentuate economic differences between the rich and poor countries, and it tends to make it more difficult to introduce technological innovations into economically deprived nations. The position of developing countries in world trade is relatively weak. World market prices for their commodities are rather low. Their poverty level continues to increase due to high foreign debt, decreasing foreign investment in the essential sectors within the developing countries, and a substantial net capital outflow from the poor to the rich countries. The gap between the North and much of the South is becoming wider and unless developing countries are given a fair chance to improve their economic status, it will be impossible to stop the destruction of natural resources such as the tropical rain forests.

If air quality and climate are to be preserved, it will be necessary for industrialized nations to reduce their disproportionately high pollution of the environment and for developing countries to overcome their socio-economic problems in an ecologically sustainable manner by achieving their own development, in keeping with their prevalent traditions and the conditions. Many of us forget that local traditions are very critical in our understanding of people at the regional and global scales.

In their justified desire to satisfy the basic needs of their population and to close the prosperity gap between the industrialized nations and the developing countries, the latter have so far mainly been guided by the economic systems of the industrialized nations which have already led to the global over-utilization of resources. Therefore, future international cooperation should consider the described and related limitations in designing environmental programs, and coordinating scientific collaboration and technology transfer.

Prof. S.V. Krupa is the Professor of Plant Pathology at the University of Minnesota, Twin City Campus, St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S.A. He is Life Member and an Advisor of International Society of Environmental Botanists, Lucknow.


This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.


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