Leading the way to cleaner air
In the case of air pollution, the small thing may be a very small car. This is what defines the movement known as sustainability. Modern society pumps millions of tons of carbon emissions into the sky, and the problem of cleaning up the whole atmosphere can seem overwhelming. But sustainability says to start with one little thing. For one Gold Canyon commuter, that meant giving up a big truck and getting a Smart car. For a crew of innovators in Tucson, it means accepting that we’re going to keep emitting greenhouse gases — and building a way to pull them back out of the atmosphere instead.
All across Arizona, people are finding real ways to balance the needs of the planet with the needs of people. Today, The Arizona Republic introduces you to the ways Arizonans are keeping the air cleaner for tomorrow.
New developments can play vital role
One way to clear Arizona’s air of all the stuff that smears our skies and chokes our lungs — the particulates, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone — is to just stop. Stop driving. Stop building things. Stop relying on power plants that belch pollutants.
The sustainability movement would take another approach to air quality: Do something that strikes an enduring balance between the demands of growing communities and the environment.
The problem is, some of the steps people can take to improve the air may seem inadequate or ineffective because the results are not immediately apparent. Ride the bus, form a carpool, even get a neighbor on board and what changes outside?
That is where sustainability’s grass-roots nature can play an important role. Individual acts and personal responsibility are valued and encouraged. What people do on their own can lead to larger steps from business and, ultimately, government leaders.
Bad air is a problem easy to see. Far-reaching solutions remain elusive.
Driving: Americans could save 1.6 billion4 gallons of gas by maintaining proper tire pressure.
Faced with a 64-mile round-trip commute from his horse-property near Gold Canyon and his workplace in Phoenix bought a Smart car.
The vehicle is itself a product of a sustainability initiative, built by a European partnership using recycled and recyclable materials. Its tires don’t even spit the grains of rubber that aggravate Phoenix’s brown cloud.
The car’s defining feature is its size, about 8 feet long and 5 feet wide. Yarina’s 2006 model gets about 50 miles to the gallon and emits less than one-third the carbon dioxide of a typical car.
“It’s incredible what that little car can do,” Yarina said. “It can’t be beat. It’s roomy, parking is a cinch, it handles quick and easy and it climbs like a bat out of you-know-what.”
Yarina and his wife left Tempe 22 years ago, seeking more room for their horses. For a while, he drove a GMC Sierra King Cab pickup, but as gas prices rose, he became more conscious of the money he spent to get to and from work.
After a lot of research, he settled on a Smart car, which earned safety ratings as impressive as its gas mileage. He paid $25,000, a premium over the similarly sized, $14,000 Toyota Yaris.
Yarina shrugs off the up-front cost. He pays slightly more than $20 to fill his gas tank, and after a week’s commuting, there is still a gallon to spare. Studies by the California Air Resources Board have concluded that cheaper operating costs would generally offset the higher costs of low-emission cars and trucks.
Travel: If the entire New York City taxi fleet were converted to hybrids, it would save the emissions of 24,000 cars.
Vehicle emissions are responsible for about 39 percent of the greenhouse gases in Arizona’s air and contribute heavily to concentrations of urban ozone and particulates.
Statewide, power plants make up another 39 percent of the greenhouse gas inventory, but in urban Maricopa and Pima counties, vehicles — cars and trucks on the roadways, construction equipment — account for most of the pollution Arizona’s county governments have set goals to reduce air pollution on a large scale, though the Legislature has declined to extend such goals outside the largest urban areas.
One of the most controversial plans to clean up air on a regional scale is to establish a cap-and-trade system aimed at power plants and other non-mobile sources of pollutants. The government would set air-quality limits, or caps, and then allow polluters that reduce emissions below the cap to trade or sell the difference in credits to polluters that exceed the limits.
Such plans face strong opposition from industry and lawmakers, mostly over who would set the caps and which countries and businesses would bear the greatest burden. In the meantime, smaller-scale efforts are under way across the state.
Air-conditioning: Getting one unit tuned up can save 220 pounds of carbon per year.
In a warehouse-sized building on the south end of Tucson, an upstart company called Global Research Technologies has built a machine its inventors say could work almost like a huge vacuum for air pollution.
The machine is an example of new carbon-capture technology, an idea that is the focus of widespread research among electric-power providers. But while utilities would capture pollutants from a stationary source, Global Research wants to tackle the more elusive mobile sources, such as cars and trucks.
Early prototypes suggest the company’s device, about the size of an industrial shipping container, could remove 1 ton of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in a day, about what a typical motorist produces in 10 weeks of driving.
Once captured, the carbon could be injected into underground rock formations and stored or perhaps sold for industrial uses. Injecting carbon into the ground is called carbon sequestration.
Millions of the carbon capture devices would have to be deployed to dramatically reduce carbon levels in the atmosphere, and the machines would require significant sources of renewable energy to avoid further fouling the air.
But, in an interview with The Arizona Republic last year, Global Research President Allen Wright compared the work in his company’s lab to the Wright Brothers’ first glider.
“Mankind has done big things all its life,” Wright said. “Big stuff shouldn’t be scary. It’s just big.”
Home: Adding weather stripping to your doors and windows can save 1,600 pounds of carbon from electrical generation per year.
Arizona’s three major power providers, Phoenix-based Arizona Public Service Co. and Salt River Project and Tucson Electric Power, are participating in a carbon-storage pilot project near the Cholla power plant in Joseph City.
The project is a test to determine whether the methods would be viable commercially. Carbon dioxide will be brought to the site and pumped about three-quarters of a mile into an underground rock formation, where it will be stored and monitored.
“The challenge is to keep the CO2 down there,” said William Auberle, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northern Arizona University who has studied carbon capture. “We’re still learning about the technology, about leaks and other issues.”
The Clean Air Act regulates air quality and sets federal standards, but Arizona’s urban areas have struggled to meet those standards. Maricopa County remains under order by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reduce particulates, the fine bits of dust that can lodge themselves in lungs and impair breathing.
The county got more bad news earlier this year when the EPA set higher standards for ozone, a colorless, odorless gas that can worsen symptoms of asthma and other lung diseases. The new rules could put Maricopa County in violation of the law again.
Trash: When 1 ton of plastic bags is reused, the energy of 11 barrels of oil is saved.
Patti Sand believes the bad air over Phoenix contributed to the death two years ago of her 11-year-old grandson, Joseph Chavez.
Joseph suffered from asthma. He took medication and underwent breathing treatments, but he remained active and in the fall of 2006 joined the school cross country team.
Sand remembers the day he died: Sept. 13. Pollution advisories had been posted. After running for a while, Joseph was hit by an asthma attack. His mother took him home for a breathing treatment, but he still struggled to breathe. She rushed him to Banner Estrella Medical Center in west Phoenix.
Arriving at the hospital a short time later, Sand hurried down a hall and saw nurses hugging and crying. She knew Joseph died later that evening.
Sand contacted the Arizona chapter of the American Lung Association the next day to find out what she could do to help spare other families a similar tragedy.
She learned that 548,000 Arizonans suffer from asthma, one of the highest rates in the nation As many as 80 Arizonans die of asthma each year.
Since Joseph died, Sand has told her story to other families, she’s volunteered her time and she’s raised money for the annual asthma walk, joining the JoJo Team, named after her grandson.
“I feel it’s going to get worse, that it’s going to become a big epidemic if we don’t do something about our air quality,” Sand said.
“One of the things my grandson used to love is the sunsets,” she said. “You look at that sunset and you think, ‘Wow, it’s a beautiful sight.’ But one of the reasons is the air pollution that makes all the beautiful colors.”
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