If you live in a large city like New York, London, Beijing or Mumbai, you are likely exposed to more air pollution than people in smaller cities in surrounding areas. But research shows that the population-pollution relationship is not the same everywhere around the globe.
Using satellite observations, NASA scientists directly measured air pollution’s dependence on population in four of the world’s major air pollution regions: the United States, Europe, China and India.
The study shows that the pollution-population relationship varies by region. For example, a city of 1 million people in Europe experiences six times higher nitrogen dioxide pollution than an equally populated city of 1 million people in India, according to the research led by Lok Lamsal, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
The variation is a reflection of regional differences such as industrial development, per capita emissions and geography. The study was published June 13 in Environmental Science & Technology.
Previously, researchers have measured the relationship between population and several urban characteristics, such as infrastructure, employment and innovation.
The researchers focused on nitrogen dioxide, or NO2, a common pollutant from the burning of fossil fuels. The gas is a precursor to the formation of near-ground ozone, which can cause respiratory problems and is a problem in many major metropolitan areas. NO2 is also unhealthy to breathe in high concentrations. One feature of the gas, however, is that it’s a good proxy for urban air quality.
Lok and colleagues studied data collected by the Ozone Monitoring Instrument on NASA’s Aura satellite, which measures NO2 throughout the atmosphere in the afternoon around the world. Next they used an air quality computer model to derive from the satellite data the annual mean concentration of the gas near the ground in some of the Northern Hemisphere’s major polluting regions, excluding hotspots such as power plants that could skew the urban relationship. By overlaying pollution concentration with population density data, the researchers could examine the relationship.
Results across the different regions showed divergent NO2 surface concentrations in urban areas of 1 million people: 0.98 parts per billion (U.S.), 1.33 ppb (Europe), 0.68 ppb (China) and 0.23 ppb (India). The same regions saw various degrees of pollution increases in cities with population of 10 million people: 2.55 ppb (U.S.), 3.86 ppb (Europe), 3.13 ppb (China) and 0.53 ppb (India).
The contribution to air pollution from surface-level NO2 in each region more than doubled when cities increased in population from 1 million to 10 million people, although in China the increase was much larger, by about a factor of five.
Even though larger cities are typically more energy efficient with lower per-capita emissions, more people still translates to more pollution. But the study reveals some noteworthy regional differences. Lamsal said:
Energy usage patterns and per capita emissions differ greatly between India and Europe. Despite large populations, Indian cities seem cleaner in terms of NO2 pollution than the study’s other regions.
The researchers say that further investigation is needed in order to clarify the causes behind the regional differences.
Eleanor Imster has helped write and edit EarthSky since 1995. She was an integral part of the award-winning EarthSky radio series almost since it began until it ended in 2013. Today, as Lead Editor at EarthSky.org, she helps present the science and nature stories and photos you enjoy. She also serves as one of the voices of EarthSky on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and G+. She and her husband live in Tennessee and have two grown sons.