How Industrial Pollution Affects Global Air Quality

Clean air is a crucial resource that affects every person on earth.

Air quality is more affected by industrial pollution than any other resource and air contaminants are a leading cause of premature deaths in heavily industrialized areas.

Read more to learn about how industrial pollution affects the global quality of air.

Sources of Air Pollution

Air pollution is a common form of environmental pollution, and has many sources, even natural. Dust storms, volcanic ash, and wildfires are all types of air pollution that can decrease air quality in the short- and long-term. Manmade sources of air pollution can be more harmful on human health and have more longlasting consequences. The primary manmade sources of air pollution include:

  • Transportation
  • Agriculture
  • Manufacturing industries

Transportation

Emissions from transportation come from the exhaust and burning of fuel from transportation sources. These include:

  • Personal vehicles
  • Public transportation including buses and trains
  • Airplanes
  • Shipping transportation including trucks and boats

Transportation emissions result in nearly 50% of nitrogen and carbon monoxide emissions every year. Since 1998, vehicle emissions have decreased by 90% in the United States due to fuel efficiency and the availbility of electric cars increasing, and the improvement of these numbers are expected to continue.

Agriculture

Agriculture emissions stem from cattle, which individually produce 70 to 120kg of methane per year from their digestive systems. In addition, poor waste treatment for the extensive amounts of manure produced by agriculture results in approximately 80% of ammonia emissions worldwide. The agriculture industry is rapidly growing, with livestock producing the largest amounts of methane in the world, and 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions. The air pollution from livestock is expected to increase as global populations and meat consumption increase, with methane emissions from livestock anticipated to increase up to 70% by 2050.

Industrial

Industrial emissions are the leading cause of air pollution worldwide. These include emissions from:

  • Factories burning coal and fossil fuels
  • Oil and ore refinement
  • Resource harvesting

Read more: How Supply Chains Impact the Environment and Human Health

Industrial pollution is often localized and primarily impactful on heavily industrialized regions. However, due to wind distributing air pollutants worldwide and climate change affecting the entire planet, industrial pollution is a global issue.

Types of Air Pollution

Carbon Dioxide

Carbon dioxide is produced by burning fossil fuels and organic material. It is a naturally occurring substance that is also produced through respiration; however, massive amounts of industrial production have emitted approximately 413 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.

Carbon dioxide emissions are the leading cause of climate change, making up 81% of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These rising carbon dioxide emissions trap solar energy in the atmosphere and increase the earth’s global temperature.

Methane

Methane is the second leading cause of climate change, making up approximately 11% of greenhouse gases. Methane is primarily produced by:

  • Agricultural livestock 
  • Landfills
  • Natural gas production and usage
  • Natural sources including wetlands, oceans, and termites

While methane emissions are substantially less than carbon dioxide emissions, it is a significantly more potent chemical and is able to trap approximately 23 times the amount of solar energy (Hogan et al., 1991).

Methane emissions are fairly variable, with annual emissions ranging from 30 to 60 million tons per year by manmade sources.

Nitrogen Dioxide

Nitrogen dioxide is created primarily through fuel combustion, which occurs from vehicle emissions and factories. Many industries worldwide use coal-burning as a fuel source, which results in high amounts of nitrogen dioxide emissions.

These emissions can have substantial impacts on the environment, as nitrogen dioxide and nitrogen oxides are key components in acid rain. In areas with exceedingly high nitrogen dioxide emissions, acid rain can be a prevalent threat that quickly and severely degrades freshwater sources, forests, and soils.

While not a direct cause of climate change, nitrogen dioxide is considered an indirect greenhouse gas, where photochemical reactions produce tropospheric ozone, which is a true greenhouse gas.

Ozone

Ozone is a crucial part of our atmosphere that filters harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun. It primarily exists in the upper atmosphere, but can be found in the ground layer through ozone pollution.

Ground-level ozone is not often emitted, but is generated by other common industrial emissions, including methane, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides. It’s primarily potent in the summertime, as nitrogen molecules react with sunlight to create ozone.

While atmospheric ozone is an essential part of our environment, ground-level ozone acts as a prominent greenhouse gas that alters wind patterns and evaporation rates, and inhibits the ability of plants to absorb carbon, leading to decreased rates of carbon uptake.

Carbon Monoxides

While carbon monoxide is generally considered an indoor pollutant, it can also be a major risk in outdoor environments, particularly in concentrated urban areas that are heavily impacted by industrialization. 

Another indirect greenhouse gas, carbon monoxide reduces the availability of other chemicals that naturally decrease methane and carbon dioxide, indirectly leading to increased warming.

Carbon monoxide is often heavily concentrated in areas of industrialization and high transportation, as it stems primarily from the burning of fossil fuels and vehicle emissions.

The United States has reduced carbon monoxide emissions from vehicles by up to 68% since 1990 due to improvements in automobile efficiency. However, global emissions continue to increase as many developing nations are unable to curb their emissions.

Particulate Matter

Particulate matter is an umbrella term for the complex mixture of airborne particles that pollute heavily urbanized areas. Particulate matter is made up of: 

  • Liquid particles
  • Solids including dust, smoke, and dirt
  • Metals
  • Acids

Particulate matter can have major impacts on the environment. In high concentrations, it can significantly reduce visibility, inhibiting the ability of plants to perform photosynthesis. It also heavily contributes to acid rain, leading to acidified drinking water, soils, and destroyed forests.

Sulfur Dioxide

Sulfur dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere through the burning of oils, diesel, and coal. It can be prominent near busy roadways, as well as industrial factories that burn these materials as a fuel source and perform ore extraction processes.

The release of sulfur dioxide is a primary contributor to acid rain, which can be devastatingly harmful to forests, freshwaters, and soils.

Like nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide is considered an indirect greenhouse gas, where it does not directly contribute to climate change, but can react with other elements to form aerosols. Aerosols created by sulfur dioxide can increase clouds’ thickness, leading to increased solar radiation and global temperatures.

Production of sulfur dioxide is steadily decreasing in the US, but is still being produced at an average of 1.8 million tons per year. People who live near or work in fossil fuel burning factories are particularly susceptible to these effects; however, sulfur dioxide can be blown hundreds of miles by the wind and affect areas far from industrialization.

Read more: How Industrial Pollution Affects Human Health

Global Effects

While many effects of industrialization are primarily localized, air pollution can have global impacts. Climate change is a consequence of heavy industrialization and greenhouse gas emissions, and has global ramifications, including:

  • Increased global temperatures
  • Increased severity of natural disasters (hurricanes, winter storms, etc.)
  • Decreased food security
  • Rises in ocean levels

Climate change is caused predominantly by industrial activities and atmospheric emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases.

Read more: Industrial Contributions to Climate Change

As well as contributing to climate change, air pollution also has major impacts on human health. These impacts are largely concentrated around heavily industrialized areas, but can also be transported across the world by wind currents. In areas like California, industrialization is high but heavily regulated. Despite this, the west coast suffers high amounts of air pollution that prominently originates from China. These pollutants are transported across the Pacific Ocean through wind currents, and increase local air pollution by up to 65%.

The effects of air pollution range from localized human health concerns to global climate change. While the vast majority of air pollution derives from industrial activities, individuals can take steps to improve their personal impacts. These steps include:

  • Minimizing purchases from unsustainable manufacturers
  • Minimizing vehicle emissions
  • Using clean sources of energy
  • Minimizing meat and dairy intake from industrial agriculture

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