Air Quality Awareness Week: Using Data and Partnerships

6 minutes read time
An air quality monitor. (State Department photo)

Air Quality Awareness Week: Using Data and Partnerships

Ten years ago, U.S. Embassy Beijing installed an air quality monitor on its roof. The resulting data created one of the most successful science diplomacy stories in recent history and launched a global air quality monitoring program that now has 26 participating U.S. embassies and consulates and 50 virtual Air Quality Fellows.

This week, April 30 to May 5, is Air Quality Awareness Week, an annual initiative spearheaded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to increase understanding about air pollution. This year is particularly noteworthy for the State Department as U.S. Embassy Beijing’s original air quality monitor becomes part of the Diplomacy Center's permanent collection.

The monitor, now retired and replaced, helped U.S. personnel make timely and informed decisions to reduce their exposure to air pollution. Using an EPA-approved monitoring method and the EPA’s associated health messaging inspired confidence.

The public also began to use the data in apps and research. Erica Thomas, the leader of the Beijing embassy team that ran the monitor from 2010-2014 and oversaw the expansion to the U.S. consulates in Guangzhou, Shanghai, Chengdu, and Shenyang, notes that the monitors in China “became a galvanizing force for positive cooperation on air pollution.” China’s extensive monitoring network continues to grow, and the U.S. EPA and Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection cooperate closely to share technical expertise on air quality monitoring, as well as adoption and enforcement of air quality policies.

With better data, the world has become increasingly aware of the toll of air pollution on human health, the economy, agriculture, and the environment. Studies show air pollution is a factor in one in every ten deaths in the world – and is responsible for an estimated $225 billion in lost labor income and more than $5 trillion in welfare losses.

With more than 60,000 employees stationed at diplomatic posts in over 190 countries, air pollution is also a key issue for the State Department.

The State Department celebrated #AQAW with a panel discussion entitled “Why Monitoring Matters” and a ribbon cutting ceremony chaired by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, Judith Garber.

The Bureau of Medical Services (MED) estimates that more than 75 percent of U.S. diplomatic posts are in locations that exceed EPA standards for fine particulate matter (PM2.5).  

Yet many areas of the world have no real-time air quality data.

To help close the gap, the State Department partnered with the EPA to create a central program in 2015. There are now 26 U.S. diplomatic posts in 16 countries reporting real-time data to the EPA AirNow website. By fall 2018, more than 35 posts in 22 countries will have monitors.

Understanding how to leverage the data can be a daunting task, however.

To support posts in that task, the State Department set up the Air Quality Fellowship, which partners U.S. air quality experts with embassies and consulates.

One Fellow, Bryan Paris, who works for the Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District in Kentucky, is paired with U.S. Embassy Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. During a visit to the Embassy, Bryan helped with data analysis from the monitor and also met with the local government to discuss air quality reporting best practices. Air quality officials from Mongolia have visited Kentucky as part of the State Department’s International Visitors’ Leadership Program.

Fellows are also helping the many U.S. diplomatic posts without monitors or locally available data.

In Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, the embassy’s Fellow, Dan Westervelt, an associate research scientist at Columbia University, modelled surface-level estimates of PM2.5 using satellite data. He also is helping the embassy get basic information about daily trends through low-cost sensors.

The Fellows also share practical information about how the United States has successfully addressed air pollution. Since 1970, aggregate U.S. emissions of the key air pollutants dropped by an average of 70 percent, while U.S. GDP grew by 246 percent.

This U.S. environmental success story, along with the world-leading U.S. air quality monitoring and emissions control industry and the presence of physical monitors at embassies and consulates, uniquely positions the United States for diplomatic engagement on air quality issues.

 “The program connects our operational needs with the best of U.S. technology and scientific advances, and then leverages it for effective engagement and diplomacy,” said Landon Van Dyke, Senior Advisor for Energy, Environment, and Sustainability at the U.S. Department of State.

Helaina Matza, who led the development of the global program and is now a Foreign Affairs Officer in the Bureau of Energy Resources, explained that this interplay between management and policy made the program especially interesting to foreign government officials.

“It is exciting to make a seemingly intractable challenge tangible – conversations can move more quickly when you can actually touch and see the technology that you’re discussing,” she said.

That ever-changing technology, along with our commitment to protect our personnel and work toward effective laws, regulations, and policies to reduce pollution, drives progress, but much remains to be done.

Current initiatives includes testing different monitoring technologies in a wide variety of operating environments, supporting research and partnerships among Federal agencies and beyond, and developing guidance and policies to support American diplomats overseas. The program also helps to build relationships with host governments, allowing the United States to more effectively share policy and technical expertise for implementing and enforcing air quality policies.

Keep up-to-date on the program and join the conversation by using the hashtags #AQAW2018 and #DOSAir on social media or by dropping us a note at DOSAir@state.gov. You can also learn about the air quality in your city and compare it to one of our 26 U.S. diplomatic posts by visiting AirNow.gov.

About the Author: Caroline D’Angelo runs the Global Air Quality Monitoring Program and the Air Quality Fellows program for the U.S. Department of State. She is based in the Office of Management Policy, Rightsizing, and Innovation.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com.