This week, from May 4 to 8, the U.S. Department of State celebrates Air Quality Awareness Week with the National Weather Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), U.S. Forest Service, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Having reliable and accessible data is a vital step to improving air quality and helping people take actions to protect their health. In the United States, air quality data is readily available thanks in large part to the Clean Air Act; yet in other countries, air quality data may be sparse – even in the most polluted areas. The Department has helped fill the data gaps by installing reference-grade monitors at over 60 U.S. embassies and consulates, a program that the Department’s Greening Diplomacy Initiative (GDI) facilitates. The data are available to the public at AirNow.gov.
Since 2008, the Department’s data has been used to increase awareness and engagement on air quality issues all over the world by U.S. overseas personnel, local and host governments, local citizens, and civil society. Recently, the Department worked with the U.S. EPA to install two types of reference monitors at the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo, allowing the EPA to study how well monitors operate at pollution levels higher than we typically experience in the United States. Since installation in May 2018, the Embassy has used the air quality data to target additional action to protect the health and safety of their personnel, including procuring room air cleaners with higher capacity airflow, purchasing respirators for employees who spend most of their workdays outdoors, and organizing townhalls to educate personnel on protective measures. Other embassies and institutions in Sarajevo use this data as well. For example, the European Union delegation to Bosnia and Herzegovina displays a live feed of AirNow in their lobby to inform their employees and visitors about the air quality outside.
U.S. embassies and consulates also use the data to work with host governments. In Sarajevo, the U.S. Embassy’s Air Quality Working Group partnered with the Sarajevo Cantonal government, recommending revisions to their air quality intervention measures. The revised measures were enacted in September 2019 and implemented that winter. Most notably, the revised measures reduced bureaucratic approval needed to implement interventions, while also assuring enforcement and government accountability by better defining the responsibilities of the cantonal institutions.
In sub-Saharan Africa, reference-grade air quality data is extremely limited. U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa leveraged three years of data from two air quality monitors to build awareness in the Embassy community and with the Ethiopian government. This data served as the bedrock for an Air Quality Management Plan, which was created by the U.S. EPA and Ethiopian government counterparts with support from the Embassy. The Government of Ethiopia is now reviewing the plan for feedback and implementation.
Improved access to air quality data has also impacted other regions, like in South and Central Asia, which has some of the world’s worst air pollution. With thousands of employees and family members in the region, the Bureau for South and Central Asian Affairs (SCA) wanted to organize a regional response. In 2018, SCA launched an air quality initiative focused on protecting Department employees and their families, partnering with host governments and civil society on policy changes to improve air quality, and promoting U.S. enviro-tech exports. Every embassy and consulate in the region has installed a reference-grade air quality monitor and publishes the data, marking the first time an entire regional bureau joined GDI’s air quality program.
Last summer, the Regional Environment, Science, Technology and Health Office in Kathmandu amplified the newly-available data by sponsoring a regional workshop called “TechCamp Kathmandu: Clean Air for South Asia.” The TechCamp brought together 50 air-quality focused influencers from seven South Asian countries with tech experts to identify challenges and propose technology-based solutions to address the impacts of air pollution. This event led to one of the first examples of trans-boundary air quality collaboration between India and Pakistan to make air quality data more accessible for citizens and policy maker of both countries.
This year for Air Quality Awareness Week, we invite you to check out the air quality data nearby by visiting AirNow.gov in the United States, or searching for the nearest monitor to you. You can take a tour through all of the Department’s current and historical global data on AirNow.gov. Tag us at @StateGDI and use #AQAW2020 with what you learn.
About the Authors: Stephanie Christel Meredith is an Eco-Management Analyst and Peter Brukx is a Pathways Intern with the Greening Diplomacy Initiative in the Office of Management Strategy and Solutions at the U.S. Department of State.