Posted in | News | Pollution

Economic Growth, Fossil-Fuel Use, and Air Quality are Closely Linked

For a long time, world economies have been powered by the combustion of fossil fuels that has also contributed to the accumulation of greenhouse gases and air pollution.

The city of Denver, Colorado, blanketed by smog. Image Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

According to Penn State researchers, a new study of around 20 years of satellite data demonstrates that quality of air, fossil-fuel combustion, and economic growth are closely related on the national and continental levels, but can be decoupled nationally.

We know air pollution and economic development are linked, but we want to know how tightly and whether our actions can change this. We found they are not inherently bonded and can be decoupled under favorable policies.

Ruixue Lei, Post-Doctoral Researcher, Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science, Penn State

The researchers added that although earlier studies have examined the links between economic growth, fossil-fuel emissions, and air pollution, this research is the first one to analyze all three collectively to find their long-standing, global relationships.

The significance of this study is that data from satellites was used for the first time to prove that we actually do not need to sacrifice our environment while at the same time having a growth economy. This relationship can be detangled, but countries may need infrastructure or policy support to make it happen.

Sha Feng, Assistant Research Professor of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science, Penn State

The team examined 18 years of satellite data, quantifying the amounts of anthropogenic aerosols in the air and fossil-fuel carbon dioxide emission estimates from the Open-Data Inventory for Anthropogenic Carbon product to find out anthropogenic emissions on national and continental levels. Furthermore, they compared those results with gross domestic product data for separate countries.

The researchers stated their data revealed that rapidly growing nations experience the most severe pollution while countries like the United States managed to grow their economies while decelerating emissions. The researchers developed a filter that enabled them to concentrate on cities and other areas in which emissions arise out of human activities.

We found the linkage between fossil-fuel combustion and air quality is not how much you emitted, it is how fast the annual increase of the combustion was. Maybe at this stage all countries cannot unbound these factors, but we still see good examples that give us hope.

Ruixue Lei, Post-Doctoral Researcher, Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science, Penn State

The team added that various kinds of pollutants have been linked with the burning of fossil fuels, and the satellite data suggested that these varied broadly by country.

The study findings published in the Environmental Research Letters journal signify that pollutants of specific kinds may be highly connected with one economic system compared to another and that those might vary as a nation goes via phases of development stated the researchers.

This paper is the first step to look at fossil-fuel emissions using satellite data at a national scale and to provide information for policymakers who face difficult challenges in balancing economic growth and reducing fossil-fuel emissions,” stated Feng.

Thomas Lauvaux, a research scientist from the French National Center for Scientific Research, also contributed to this study. This study was financially supported by NASA.

Journal Reference:

Lei, R., et al. (2020) Country-scale trends in air pollution and fossil fuel CO2 emissions during 2001–2018: confronting the roles of national policies and economic growth. Environmental Research Letters.


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