Local air quality experts call on students to help reduce emissions

Provo is home to a large student population because of BYU. Air quality experts recommend students cut down on vehicle emissions to improve air quality in Utah Valley. (Abigail Gunderson)

Local environmental researchers and policymakers are encouraging students to cut down on emissions wherever possible to reduce air pollution.

For a transient population like university students who largely live in rented apartments and homes, reducing vehicle emissions may be the best option for improving air quality during their time in Provo.

Utah’s biggest sources of air pollution are vehicles, homes and businesses. Since students don’t have much control over their homes, Ben Abbott, assistant professor in Plant and Wildlife Sciences at BYU, said students should focus on reducing emissions where they can.

“The number one thing that students can do is change the way you’re getting around, you know, through your transportation,” Abbott said.

With smoggy summer days along the Wasatch front and the occasional air quality alert, Abbott said people often assume big manufacturers are the ones to blame for air pollution — but that isn’t the case.

“You can see the smokestack and it seems like that’s where the pollution is coming from,” Abbott said. “But the pollution is coming from us. It’s coming from our energy choices — the way we get around, the way we heat our homes and then the goods and services that we consume.”

The biggest sources of air pollution in Utah are vehicles and homes and businesses. BYU professor Ben Abbott said students should focus on reducing their vehicle emissions. (Graph via Envision Utah)

With little control over building emissions in an apartment complex, Hannah Salzl, sustainability coordinator and planner for Provo City, said students can reduce building emissions by following guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency.

“They’ve given their three main points, which are that you can limit the sources of pollutants coming into your home, you can improve ventilation and you can try to purify the air where you can,” she explained.

Salzl said air quality is a difficult metric to interact with directly and usually shows success or failure in other environmental policies, like transportation, carbon emissions and recycling, since they all impact air quality. Salzl said she thinks it’s important for individuals and governments to focus on the areas of air quality they can affect, because those areas are so limited.

“We have to do everything we can in that narrow range. It makes it, to me, more important to act in those areas,” she said.

Bo Call, air quality monitor section manager for Utah Department of Environmental Quality, said Utah’s air quality is “quite a bit better than last year,” but that doesn’t mean Utahns are out of the woods when it comes to air pollution. Call said some of the credit for better air this summer goes to the less severe wildfire season in Utah and surrounding states, as well as an “active weather-wise early summer,” which he said helps keep the air clean.

As far as controllable metrics go, Call said emission-reduction measures are going to do the most good in the long run.

“In a general sense I think that we’re doing well because we’re reducing the emissions,” Call said. “It all kind of plays into the same type of narrative that we’re doing better, but the problem is probably not solved, based on the numbers.”

As population grows steadily in Utah, Call said the potential for increased pollution from more cars is offset by newer and electric models that don’t pollute as much.

“The amount of pollution that we create has been going down steadily even as our population grows,” Call said.

Abbott urged students to do whatever they can to improve air quality.

“This is one of the most important or the most important public health crisis that we’re facing,” Abbott said. He encouraged people from all disciplines to find a way to help reduce pollution.

“We have to work together, you know, across every field,” Abbott said. “Every job is a climate job.”

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