Dr. Tedros Adhenon Ghebreyesus, head of “WHO,” termed air pollution “new tobacco” in October 2018, emphasizing the severity of hazards confronting the planet and endangering the health of all living organisms. Taking into cognizance the historical account of smog and initiatives embarked on to fight it, we will explore the grim effects of smog and collective measures to save the world from this perilous phenomenon.
[Reference: Carrington, Damian, and Matthew Taylor. “Air Pollution Is the ‘New Tobacco’, Warns WHO Head.” The Guardian, 27 Oct. 2018, www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/27/air-pollution-is-the-new-tobacco-warns-who-head.]
Smog: A Perilous Challenge for the World
Conscious of the hazardous impacts of smog on human health and the environment, Europe and North American countries took stringent measures to provide clean air to their citizens and were successful in bringing down the emissions from factories and homes. At about the same time, the eastern hemisphere experienced a surge in population growth and profound economic development.
This led to the mushrooming growth of industrialization and urbanization. Today, Asia accounts for 40% of the global economy and is home to some of the most polluted cities in the world. For now, the most affected areas by smog lie in the global south, particularly in developing countries in Africa, South America, and South Asia.
Historical Context and Effects of Smog
Following the industrial revolution, the exponential growth in the use of combustion and coal consumption became the primary cause of an increase in primary pollutants in the atmosphere. The rise in population, especially in the first half of the 20th century, caused a substantial increase in emissions due to the burning of coal by private households for heating and cooking. The first casualties of the harsh impact of air pollution, or smog, were Europe and North America, which contributed 80% of sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions.
In the second half of the 20th century, smog caused havoc in the developed world and forced governments to act due to its hazardous impact on health, the environment, and even the daily routine. The Great Smoke of London in 1952, which was brought on by a confluence of high-pressure weather and industrial pollution, covered the city for five days (5–9 December) and was responsible for the Clean Air Act of 1956, a turning point in the history of “environmentalism.” Smog was so dense that pedestrians couldn’t walk, transportation stopped, indoor concerts were called off as the audience was unable to see the stage, and a spike was observed in deaths and hospitalizations due to pneumonia and bronchitis. Let us look at the prominent factors that are contributing to the grim effects of smog.
Industrial and vehicle emissions
The Donora Smog Crisis of 1948 is categorized as the worst air pollution calamity in US history. The investigations revealed that Donora Zinc and American Steel & Wire Plant were burping out emissions that are a combination of poisonous gases, heavy metals, and fine particulate matter, which have affected 5000 out of 14000 locals with mild to severe symptoms. This catastrophe had such an impact on the residents and the movement for environmentalism that it led to the establishment of the Donora Historical Society and Smog Museum. In 1950, President Truman convened the first National Air Pollution Conference, and the Clean Air Act was passed by Congress in 1963.
[Reference: “Clean Air Act Requirements and History | US EPA.” US EPA, 27 May 2015, www.epa.gov/clean-air-act-overview/clean-air-act-requirements-and-history.]
Excessive consumption and overpopulation
Varied reasons attributing to the grim effects of smog include heavy reliance on coal power plants and excessive use of solid fuels for private households or indoor needs such as cooking, heating, and lighting. Developing countries’ inability to effectively implement policies is hampered by limited technological capacity and meager economic resources.
Initiatives such as industry relocation and the use of energy-efficient power plants were instrumental in reducing emissions and improving air quality in Europe and Northern America.
Production of Waste in Excess
Another contributing factor exacerbating the catastrophe of smog is the weakening of laws, policies, and administrative paraphernalia of the governance system. This is aptly evident from the fact that Pakistan and India are among the worst on the Air Quality Index (AQI).
In the six most polluted cities in the world, 20–35% of the constituent pollutants in smog come from combustion engine vehicles. In addition, smog is the second-highest risk factor for diseases and costs around 150 billion USD.
Climate change is another contributing factor that aggravates the challenge of smog. It creates conditions that amplify the heat and stagnant air, thus furthering the risk of harmful ozone or ground-level ozone, also termed smog. A study at NASA has contemplated the warming of Arctic regions, causing changes to the Arctic ecosystem due to an increase in ozone pollution.
[Reference: “NASA – Changes in the Arctic: Consequences for the World.” NASA – Changes in the Arctic: Consequences for the World, 24 Jan. 2005, www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/earthandsun/arctic_changes.html.]
Agricultural Material Burning
Agricultural material burning contributes significantly to the formation of smog, leading to detrimental effects on human health and the environment. This practice involves the deliberate ignition of crop residues, releasing pollutants like particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, and carbon monoxide into the atmosphere. When these pollutants interact with sunlight, they undergo chemical reactions that result in the formation of smog, which is characterized by ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter.
The consequences of agricultural material burning and the resulting smog are grave. Fine particulate matter poses a serious risk to respiratory health, exacerbating asthma, causing respiratory illnesses, and increasing the likelihood of cardiovascular diseases. Smog diminishes air quality, reduces visibility, harms crops, and disrupts ecosystems, affecting both agricultural productivity and wildlife.
Addressing this issue requires a comprehensive approach. Through collective action, we can minimize the grim effects of smog resulting from agricultural activities and create a greener and healthier future.
A Future Outlook on the Grim Effects of Smog
The advent of the 21st century marked unprecedented advancements in technology. Scientists were unnerved by the hazards of smog or air pollution on human health. The issue is increasingly becoming relevant as one of the top agendas in international politics. Given the magnanimity of the issue and its perilous consequences for the environment and health, a collective holistic approach encompassing political, administrative, and technological aspects can only save our world from the grim effects of smog.
The world’s leaders should aim to convert the challenge of smog or air pollution into an opportunity by using the terrain of the environment for building peace, thus diverting the focus from clod wars and decades-long conflicts like Palestine, Kashmir, and regional hegemony to collectively confront the menace of smog, one of the major causes of climate change.
Exponential urbanization in developing countries has enhanced deforestation, and fossil fuels have further dampened the air quality. The governments must take immediate initiatives along the lines of the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1963 in Britain and the USA to reduce their emissions from factories and households.
Technology can again act as a savior for the world. The rapid introduction of energy-efficient power plants, clean means of transportation, and renewable energy sources can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of human activities. Governments can incentivize the adoption of these technologies by offering tax breaks and subsidies to companies that invest in them.
Additionally, individuals can contribute to the cause by making simple lifestyle changes such as using public transportation, reducing meat consumption, and conserving energy at home. Education also plays a crucial role in creating awareness about the impact of climate change and encouraging people to take action.
Collaboration between governments, businesses, and individuals is essential to tackling this global issue. The Paris Agreement signed in 2015 is a significant step towards achieving this goal, with countries committing to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. However, more needs to be done to ensure that we leave a habitable planet for future generations. It is time for us to act collectively and responsibly towards preserving our planet’s health and sustainability.