Ozone pollution causes smog and makes it unhealthy to breathe the air. It also taking a toll on nature, killing even the hardiest of plants, threatening the insects that pollinate them, and even reducing harvests of corn, wheat, and other food staples. And as climate change worsens, scientists say that the effects of ozone pollution on this biodiversity are only expected to get worse.
Somewhat paradoxically, there’s “good” ozone and “bad” ozone. Good ozone is the invisible gas that floats in the upper atmosphere and protects Earth from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. “Bad” ozone is created closer to the Earth’s surface mostly from human activities, like burning fossil fuels. Cars, trucks, power plants, refineries, farm vehicles, and oil and gas development all emit pollutants, like nitrous oxide, methane, and volatile organic compounds, which when exposed to sunlight and warm temperatures, transform into bad ozone. At this “ground level,” the chemical becomes “the most damaging pollutant in the world,” environmental Prof. Evgenios Agathokleous told Yale’s School of the Environment. “It induces the most widespread damage to plants, and it’s a very serious threat to biodiversity.”
Ground-level ozone is also a greenhouse gas. It’s the “third worst [greenhouse gas] after carbon dioxide and methane,” reports Yale. In an insidious way, climate change is increasing the likelihood that bad ozone will form—which will then accelerate climate change even more.
The US Forest Service is particularly concerned about what it calls “the most pervasive air pollutant world-wide and a serious threat to the conservation and sustainability of world forests.” Trees as tenacious as California’s 2,000-year-old redwoods are being weakened by ozone pollution that blows in from cities and farms a hundred or more miles away. But so are the tiny microbes that live in the forest’s soil. At either the grand or the minuscule scale, the consequences are serious. Ozone pollution can make plants less nutritious. It can stunt a plant’s roots and affect when leaves fall to the ground. It can interfere with the ability of a pollinating insect to find its way to a blossom.
In 1987, after research showed that “good” ozone in the upper atmosphere was being eaten away by industrial chemicals and refrigerants like chlorofluorocarbons and methyl bromide, countries worldwide banded together behind a solution that became known as the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. “The Earth’s ozone layer would have collapsed by 2050 with catastrophic consequences” without it, National Geographic reported on the Protocol’s 30th anniversary. “There would have been an additional 280 million cases of skin cancer … and the potential intensity of hurricanes and cyclones would have increased three times.”
Instead, the Montreal Protocol has prevailed, showing the world that it’s possible to stop ozone pollution too—but only if citizens and policy makers unite behind a science-based understanding of how serious the threats are and agree on solutions that can make a difference sooner rather than later.
What can you do?
- First and foremost, it is absolutely critical to support President Biden’s Build Back Better plan to transition the US to a 100% clean energy economy, while becoming an international model for other countries.
- You can also vote to elect candidates at every level of government—local, state, national—who are committed to switching to clean energy and away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible.
- Automobile engines and industrial processes produce most of the compounds that result in ozone pollution, says the Forest Service. So when it comes to transportation, you can be more climate-smart when you drive, by keeping your vehicle tuned up; by using mass transit, biking, and walking; and by switching to a more fuel-efficient vehicle, especially a plug-in hybrid or all-electric vehicle.
- You can reduce your use of fossil fuels at home too. Replace incandescent light bulbs with energy-efficient LEDs. Insulate and weatherize your home. Use a programmable thermostat to automatically help your HVAC system use energy more efficiently.
- You can also switch to clean energy choices like solar and wind to supply your heating, cooling, and electricity. Even if you can’t put solar collectors on your own home, your utility company may offer programs that let you purchase your power from clean energy sources.
There is absolutely no scenario under which stopping ground-level ozone pollution does not make sense. The only good news about “bad” ozone is that we know how to do that.