Just days after the polar vortex pushed real-feel temperatures in parts of Maryland to below-freezing conditions, central Maryland is now gasping for breath as the National Weather Service (NWS) signaled a Code Orange air quality alert over the region. On the air quality scale, an orange alert would pose problems for children and the elderly, and also people who battle breathing disorders. The sudden deterioration in the state’s air quality has been caused by a weather phenomenon called an inversion.
An inversion is the change in how temperature increases as we climb in altitude. Usually, temperature falls as we go higher into the atmosphere, but during an inversion, the opposite occurs – the temperature rises with an increase in altitude. Such a situation creates a virtual screen over a region, holding down the emissions that rise from the streets. The fumes stagnate, eventually snowballing to create poor air quality.
Though air quality sirens go off every summer, chaotic climatic conditions may lead to the air quality worsening during winters as well. Instead of downplaying such aberrance, it is vital for cities to ask the right questions on the ways to tackle such worsening air quality conditions. Looking to Western Europe may help – as countries like France, Germany and the Netherlands invest billions to reduce their carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030.
States and cities can cut emissions through two radically different methods – by forcing people to adopt a low-emission lifestyle, or positively inducing people to opt for change. The former approach includes banning diesel vehicles in downtown areas or charging them hefty tariffs if they want to drive around – the method that is now popular in Germany. In France, the Macron government planned to introduce a fossil fuel surcharge that was so unpopular it led to violent protests across the country, with people adorned in yellow vests demanding that the fuel surcharge be rescinded.
The far more agreeable solution would be for governments to incentivize drivers who buy hybrids or all-electric vehicles. This could be done by providing tax benefits – as is done in the Netherlands, where the government waives the registration fee and road taxes for plug-in electric vehicles. Norway, in addition to offering similar incentives, has gone a bit further by allowing its electric vehicles to park for free and bypass traffic by driving across specific bus lanes. Currently, Norway leads the world in electric vehicle adoption, with nearly one-third of all the cars sold in the country being a hybrid or fully electric.
But to be fair, the moral superiority of preferring an electric vehicle over a gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicle is still debatable. If the sum total of emissions across the lifetime of an electric vehicle – from the manufacturing floor to a decade on road – is totaled it may not be considerably less than that of a traditional auto. However, what electric vehicles do help with is reducing emissions at ground zero, as all the power they consume is produced in plants that are far away from the city boundaries.
And it is precisely this prospect of reducing emissions within urban areas that is attractive to government, which incidentally, should be the focus of congested and traffic-prone regions like central Maryland as well.
The city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands recently partnered with BMW to ensure the drivers of BMW hybrids get reminders (via a smartphone app) each time they cross into the city’s “electric-only zones.” The city administration has geo-fenced regions to effect this, and the initial results seem promising. Participants in the pilot used battery power exclusively 90 percent of the time when driving within the geo-fenced zones.
In the Netherlands, Rotterdam has consistently been at the top of the emissions chart, in part because it is home to Europe’s largest port. While that port is an economic engine for the country, it also produces 20 percent of the Netherlands’ total emissions. The port is not taking this lightly; it has a target to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 49 percent by 2030. This, along with the city government’s relentless pursuit towards lower emissions will hopefully yield results in the long run.
Central Maryland, with its proximity to the port of Baltimore, has parallels with the situation that faces Rotterdam. It is critical to look at ways to lessen the air pollution burden, even if adverse climatic issues become more frequent going forward. Meanwhile, the NWS expects that the current situation will alleviate once the cold air mass is replaced by a warm air mass, which is expected to happen later today.