US rolls out air pollution monitors to embassies worldwide

Building on success in Beijing, the State Department hopes to mobilise action in India, Vietnam and Mongolia

The US embassy in Beijing, where concern about smog has led to climate action (Pic: US State Department)

The US embassy in Beijing, where air pollution data has led to climate action (Pic: US State Department)

By Megan Darby

The US is to monitor air quality at its embassies around the world, putting pressure on host governments to tackle harmful smog.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will expand its AirNow programme, which rates air quality from good to hazardous across the US, to include data from overseas diplomatic missions.

As well as giving US officials information to protect their health, the State Department hopes the initiative will mobilise action on air pollution and climate change – as happened with a pilot project in Beijing.

John Kerry, the secretary of state, said at the policy’s launch this week: “There was a time when poor visibility in cities like Beijing was blamed simply on excessive fog.

“But today, in part because of expanded air quality monitoring in cities throughout China, the Chinese government is now deeply committed to getting the pollution under control.”

Health problems

The EPA monitors will focus on small particulates less than 2.5 microns wide, which get into people’s lungs, triggering asthma and other health conditions.

Gina McCarthy, head of the EPA, said she was “not the most popular person” when the organisation first highlighted the scale of pollution in Beijing a few years ago.

But it spurred action, she said, and created opportunities for US companies to offer solutions.

India will be next to get air quality monitors in the coming months, followed by Vietnam and Mongolia.

“We’re going to help them understand how they can do what we have done and have the success across the US to reduce the kind of air pollution that at one time was choking our cities,” said McCarthy.

Climate benefits

Many measures to tackle air pollution, such as improving vehicle efficiency or cutting back on coal use, go hand in hand with lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Cooperation between the US and China on curbing pollution laid the groundwork for a climate pact announced by presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping last November, Kerry said. “Because of that, the possibility of an ambitious and absolutely critical agreement in Paris actually is on the horizon.”

Negotiators meet in Paris this December to strike a global climate deal, with the aim of limiting temperature rise to 2C above pre-industrial levels.

The agreement will be based on national targets to cut emissions, due to be published in the coming months. Those of China and the US, the world’s two biggest emitters, are essential.

During Obama’s visit last year, China committed for the first time to a peak year for its emissions, in 2030.

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