A new air-quality report not only ranks Southern California as the worst in the country, but details the vicious cycle of greenhouse gas emissions contributing to warmer temperatures and drought, which in turn contribute to steadily worsening wildfires that release more harmful emissions into the air.
Combining smog and soot, San Diego had the nation’s worst air last year, followed by Los Angeles-Orange County and the Inland Empire, according to the Environment California-CALPIRG study, “Trouble in the Air,” released Tuesday, Oct. 5.
The rankings are similar to those issued earlier this year by the American Lung Association and by IQAir, and were announced a day ahead of California Clean Air Day, in which residents are encourage to take numerous steps to reduce emissions.
However, some things are beyond most individuals’ control.
While the West — along with the rest of the nation — initially enjoyed the air-quality benefits of the COVID-19 pandemic, which greatly reduced traffic, the region’s record-shattering 2020 fire season quickly changed that. In all, western wildfires torched more than 10.2 million acres and destroyed more than 10,000 structures last year, mostly in Washington, Oregon and California.
“The effects of the fire didn’t stay contained to the West Coast and the Rockies,” the report notes. “Americans across the country noticed their summer skies darkened and smelled the smoke from far-off wildfires.”
Southern California has long had some of the worst air quality in the country despite having the nation’s most extensive emissions regulations. Contributing to that trend are the West’s wildfires, which are burning twice as many acres as they would without climate change, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, cited in the Environment California report.
“We had the lesson burned into us that the greenhouse gases we produce today will have repercussions for the air our children and grandchildren breathe – just as the carbon pollution pumped into the atmosphere over the last century helped fuel 2020’s devastating wildfires,” the report says.
The Environment California report focuses on two types of emissions that contribute to smog, also known as ground-level ozone, and soot, also known as particulate pollution. For nitrogen oxide emissions, the biggest source (59%) is the use of transportation-related fossil fuels. For volatile organic compounds emissions, the biggest source (38%) is wildfires.
Those conclusions were based on 2017 data, well before last year’s massive fires that further exacerbated problems.
And while fossil fuels contribute to smog, they also contribute to hotter temperatures.
“The vicious cycle of air pollution and global warming is already impacting our lives,” the report says. “Higher temperatures have already resulted in increased ozone, despite lower emission of the chemicals that create ozone.”
The hotter and drier conditions driven by climate change “increase the frequency and severity of wildfires, which … can spike air pollution to dangerous levels,” it says. Those fires also can increase temperatures and hasten the rate of ozone formation. And more ozone pollution is likely to accelerate climate change.
In 2020, more than one in six Americans live in counties with more than 100 days that failed to reach the air quality threshhold that the EPA dubs “good.”
That puts those resident at an increased risk of premature death, respiratory and cardiovascular problems, cancer, immune deficiency, and fertility and pregnancy related issues, according to the report.
Such health threats were also mentioned in the reports earlier this year by the American Lung Association and IQAir, which broke down their geographical rankings differently than Environment California.
Beside the Environment California ranking of major population centers by combined smog and soot pollution, the report broke it down by each of those types of contaminants.
The Inland Empire ranked as having the nation’s worst smog in 2020, with the Los Angeles-Orange County region in 11th place. But Los Angeles-Orange County ranked second worst for particulate matter — also known as soot — with San Diego at the top of the list and the Inland Empire in fifth.
The American Lung Association named the five-county Los Angeles region as the nation’s smoggiest metro area for the 21st time in the 22 years it has been doing the ranking, based on three years of data from 2017 to 2019. In a county-by-county breakdown, San Bernardino, Riverside and Los Angeles counties ranked first, second and third. Orange County ranked 25th while also receiving a failing grade. The five-county Los Angeles region ranked fourth for soot.
The IQAir report looked at soot rankings by city for 2020, with Los Angeles County home to 14 of the nation’s 25 worst cities and the Inland Empire accounting for three more. Of 106 countries ranked worldwide, the U.S.ranked 22nd best.
Fixing the problem
A key component of California Clean Air Day is encouraging residents to take steps to reduce emissions, including biking or using mass transit, installing solar panels, combining online purchase into a single shipment, and skipping meat one day a week.
The Environment California report, meanwhile, focuses more on governmental policy and uses its data to urge more rapid movement away from fossil fuels.
“Fossil fuel combustion is the primary human-caused source of air pollution – and the main driver of global warming, which threatens to make air quality even worse in the years to come,” it says. “Policymakers must move quickly to reduce air pollution, including by electrifying every sector of the economy and transitioning to clean, renewable sources of electricity.”
Unprecedented drought, heat mark start of fire season for Southern California
San Bernardino, Riverside, Los Angeles counties rank as smoggiest in U.S.
Wildfires made California air quality among worst in the world, even during pandemic
Water shortage, fire threat move to top of Californians’ environment concerns
Only 198 of California’s 625 fire lookout towers remain as more forests burn
Specific recommendations include more incentives to phase out fossil fuel vehicles, enforcing and expanding the Clean Air Act, and more legislative efforts to promote walking, biking and mass transit over individual vehicles
The report points to the early days of the pandemic as an example of what is possible.
“We … learned the hopeful lesson that if we reduce pollution today, we can enjoy noticeably cleaner skies almost overnight,” it says. “These lessons share the same takeaway: Cutting air pollution now – including by transitioning away from burning fossil fuels in our homes, businesses and vehicles – can help us and future generations enjoy healthier lives.”