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How Nature Can Help Reduce Air Pollution

Climate change is a permanent epidemic that the Earth has been enduring for decades. Now, in 2019, it’s the worst it’s ever been, so much so that a lot of the damage is irreversible. Government bodies worldwide have made monetary commitments, policies for greener cities, and have invested in technology and science to help save the huge amount of healthy Earth that has been lost. However, studies show that the best way to regain the natural environment that has been lost, is to use nature itself, as opposed to complex technology. This is especially true for helping areas of the world suffering greatly from air pollution and industrial powers expelling greenhouse gases and other harmful substances into the atmosphere. 

A study published by Physics.org revealed that planting trees and other plants near areas of heavy air pollution can help reduce that pollution by up to 27%! Plants would also be a much cheaper alternative to enforcing the use of green technology to combat negative air emissions. The research conducted measured areas of land near power plants, industrial factory sites, roadways, gas and oil drilling sites, etc. and found that in 75% of the land data collected, growing new plant life near these sites would be the cheapest option to reducing air pollution.

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

The study was extensive; researchers took air pollution data from different counties in 48 out of the 50 states in America. The research compared and contrasted the level of air pollution with the amount of vegetation that was in those areas to begin with. Then, they calculated how much it would cost to add additional trees and plants to those areas, based off different state-wide costs and regulations. They then took the data of the current state of each counties pollution/vegetation levels and calculated the capacity to which the vegetation alleviated and reduced pollution without any additional plants/trees. According to the study, researchers focused on major air pollutants found all over the world; sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and any other particulate matter that contributes to smog such as dust or soot.

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Through their calculations, it was found that restoring vegetation to its full potential in each county (based on their specific environmental conditions), could reduce air pollution up to 27%. It’s important to emphasize that restoration would be different for every county. For example, the amount of vegetation restoration that would be needed in a vast farming landscape in Mississippi would be much less than that of a desert environment in California. However, even though the types of landscapes are vastly different all over the world, the research showed that air pollution could be lowered in urban settings just as much as more rural settings as long as the ratio of vegetation is calculated and correctly executed. This conclusion is great news in regard to our planets overall health and restoration. Additionally, it’s important for our health as human beings, and any other living thing on Earth. Poor air quality can lead to diseases such as lung cancer, heart disease, asthma, throat cancer, etc. and research shows that areas of the world with heavily polluted air tend to also have higher rates of these diseases for the individuals living there. 

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

It’s time that we help fight nature with nature. Human beings made the creations that are killing the planet, and while we’ve thought that more man-made devices can help reverse that damage, maybe it’s time we take a page out of Mother Nature’s book and help let her do the restorative work we all so desperately need.