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North America’s biggest export 

Air pollution

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Comparing environment then and now is difficult. Indicators, methods and technology---our ability to measure accurately---change.

Anthropogenic climate change wasn’t on our minds in 1970. Air pollution was, but only rich countries measured it and they didn’t look at the global picture.

Two Dalhousie scientists, Aaron van Donkelaar and Randall Martin, are helping NASA and the world get a clearer view of air pollution. Their research uses satellite imaging to estimate pollution in murkier regions. “Fine aerosol---small particles in the air that are linked to negative effects on health---have dropped by about half,” says van Donkelaar. We’ve fared better than the national average. Air pollution has decreased in most of North America and Europe.

One reason for the improvements is that regulations---the kind activists always demand--- “have driven down emissions from sources such as power plants and cars.”

But that’s not the whole story. Cheap overseas labour is a driving force---businesses have moved their factories to Asia and South America, exporting their environmental footprint. “North American air pollution has, in general, declined and our health and environment have benefited, but we’ve shipped much of our pollution to Asia for approximately three billion people to breath,” van Donkelaar says.

That “can also lead to less jobs and less income to put towards more environmentally friendly products,” he adds.

The jury is out on whether global air pollution has gotten better or worse. It was a problem then and still is. Eighty percent of the world’s population, according to NASA, “now breathes polluted air that exceeds the World Health Organization’s recommended level of 10 micrograms per cubic metre.”

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