Utahns aren’t strangers to the thick, smoggy blanket known as the winter inversion. As it turns out, neither are dozens of other places around the globe, and they, like the Wasatch Front, know something has to give to make their air quality more palatable and less dangerous. Can their efforts to clean the air inform those in the Beehive State?
That was the question on the mind of Deseret News reporter Erica Evans as she traveled to Oslo, Norway, to understand what a port city in northern Europe was doing to combat its poor air quality and determine if similar techniques could find their way to other places. The answer, like most things, is mixed, but engaging in intercity comparisons makes a valuable exercise for both lawmakers and laypeople.
One thing should be clear at the outset of air quality negotiations: Pollution makes bad air, not inversions, but inversions are perfect backstops for minuscule pollutant particles. The unfortunate truth for any city battling days or weeks of inversion is the root causes lie in the geography of the place and natural weather patterns — two constants that aren’t easily altered. The goal, then, is to minimize pollution such that it minimizes the health hazard posed to residents.
That’s not easy, especially when a majority of the population isn’t overtly affected on poor air quality days. “I think the problem with bad air is that not everybody feels it. And if you don't feel it it's really hard for people to acknowledge it,” says Anna Bistrup, a Norwegian mother of two asthmatic children. Difficulty breathing is one immediate effect, but air pollution is also linked to cognitive impairment, increased risk of stroke and shortened lifespans. As Bistrup says, “This is an invisible enemy.”
To fight back, Oslo acted aggressively, and that’s the first and perhaps most important lesson for Utahns. If you want clean air, it has to become a priority.
The second lesson is that small steps taken today do make a difference tomorrow. Despite a population growth of 26 percent in Utah between 2002 and 2014, emissions per capita fell by 46 percent during the same time. Higher fuel and emissions standards, better access to public transit and information campaigns probably all contributed, but none of these came at once. Similar efforts should persist and not be abandoned. Additionally some communities can become walking communities. A willingness to try a solution, even an imperfect one, is a way to make positive change.18 comments on this story
Third, health must be a priority. Personal health is on the line when pollution is in the air, and local governments carry the responsibility to weigh plans for growth against their effect on pollution. In Oslo, the most effective measures have been short-term interventions on bad air days, like decreasing transit fares and barring diesel vehicles from entering the city. Helping vulnerable populations breathe easier on red days is a worthy goal.
Effective long-term air quality policy would balance the necessity of government action with what a citizenry is willing to concede, but it would also support innovation and community solutions. Any change will inconvenience at least a few people — that can’t be helped. Fortunately, humans are prone to adapt. And ongoing commitments to solutions journalism like Evans’ work will drive the right conversations to make these urban centers healthier places to call home.