Air quality and climate connections

Arlene M Fiore, Vaishali Naik, Eric M Leibensperger
Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association 2015, 65 (6): 645-85

UNLABELLED: Multiple linkages connect air quality and climate change. Many air pollutant sources also emit carbon dioxide (CO2), the dominant anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG). The two main contributors to non-attainment of U.S. ambient air quality standards, ozone (O3) and particulate matter (PM), interact with radiation, forcing climate change. PM warms by absorbing sunlight (e.g., black carbon) or cools by scattering sunlight (e.g., sulfates) and interacts with clouds; these radiative and microphysical interactions can induce changes in precipitation and regional circulation patterns. Climate change is expected to degrade air quality in many polluted regions by changing air pollution meteorology (ventilation and dilution), precipitation and other removal processes, and by triggering some amplifying responses in atmospheric chemistry and in anthropogenic and natural sources. Together, these processes shape distributions and extreme episodes of O3 and PM. Global modeling indicates that as air pollution programs reduce SO2 to meet health and other air quality goals, near-term warming accelerates due to "unmasking" of warming induced by rising CO2. Air pollutant controls on CH4, a potent GHG and precursor to global O3 levels, and on sources with high black carbon (BC) to organic carbon (OC) ratios could offset near-term warming induced by SO2 emission reductions, while reducing global background O3 and regionally high levels of PM. Lowering peak warming requires decreasing atmospheric CO2, which for some source categories would also reduce co-emitted air pollutants or their precursors. Model projections for alternative climate and air quality scenarios indicate a wide range for U.S. surface O3 and fine PM, although regional projections may be confounded by interannual to decadal natural climate variability. Continued implementation of U.S. NOx emission controls guards against rising pollution levels triggered either by climate change or by global emission growth. Improved accuracy and trends in emission inventories are critical for accountability analyses of historical and projected air pollution and climate mitigation policies.

IMPLICATIONS: The expansion of U.S. air pollution policy to protect climate provides an opportunity for joint mitigation, with CH4 a prime target. BC reductions in developing nations would lower the global health burden, and for BC-rich sources (e.g., diesel) may lessen warming. Controls on these emissions could offset near-term warming induced by health-motivated reductions of sulfate (cooling). Wildfires, dust, and other natural PM and O3 sources may increase with climate warming, posing challenges to implementing and attaining air quality standards. Accountability analyses for recent and projected air pollution and climate control strategies should underpin estimated benefits and trade-offs of future policies.

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