Plants Could Compete With Tech for Reducing Air Pollution

©. archimede

Restoring plants and trees near US industrial sites could reduce air pollution by an average of 27 percent, new study finds.

"Despite the proliferation of control technologies, air pollution remains a major concern across the United States, suggesting the need for a paradigm shift in methods for mitigating emissions," begins a new study from Ohio State University. Did someone say paradigm shift? Good, because technology like smokestack scrubbers isn't doing the job. So who you gonna call? The plant kingdom.

“The fact is that traditionally, especially as engineers, we don’t think about nature; we just focus on putting technology into everything,” said Bhavik Bakshi, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Ohio State University and lead author of the study. He adds:

And so, one key finding is that we need to start looking at nature and learning from it and respecting it. There are win-win opportunities if we do – opportunities that are potentially cheaper and better environmentally.

To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers looked at data on annual United States emissions and land cover on a county-by-county basis, which revealed that existing vegetation – forest, grassland, and shrubland – takes up a notable amount of current emissions. Then they examined the impact that restorative planting, "bringing the vegetation cover of a given county to its county-average levels," would have on air pollution levels, specifically the most common air pollutants – sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and nitrogen dioxide. The numbers are surprising ... or not, to anyone who understands the power of plants.

"Restoring land cover, where possible, to county-level average canopy cover can further remove pollution of SO2 [sulfur dioxide], PM[particulate matter]10, PM2.5, and NO2 [nitrogen dioxide] by an average of 27% through interception of particulate matter and absorption of gaseous pollutants," notes the study.

And if this sounds like an expensive fix, get this: They concluded that in 3/4 of the counties analyzed, it was cheaper to use plants to mitigate air pollution than it was to add technological upgrades. The only place where tech was cheaper was for industrial boilers. The power of plants could be used to help quell the impact of emissions from industrial sites, roadways, power plants, and oil and gas drilling sites.

Given the tremendous ill health effects brought about by poor air quality – health issues like asthma, lung cancer and heart disease – and that 40 percent of U.S. inhabitants live with pollution, this is actually a pretty urgent matter.

While I maintain that less polluting industry is the best solution, in the meantime, planting trees certainly can not hurt. They will lead to cleaner air, and have so many other benefits as well – thank you, plants and trees for taking another one for the team. But can we actually get our act together and embrace this simple yet radical idea? We seem more intent on razing nature rather than lifting it up.

"The thing that we are interested in is basically making sure that engineering contributes positively to sustainable development," Bakshi said. "And one big reason why engineering has not done that is because engineering has kept nature outside of its system boundary."

The study, Nature-Based Solutions Can Compete with Technology for Mitigating Air Emissions Across the United States, was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.