Big data could clear up arguments about pollution

Paris climate agreement

President Donald Trump’s decision to take the US out of the Paris climate agreement is understandable if it’s true that only the US was required to actually pay money and was generally being treated unfairly. 

There may be other specific reasons, but while it seems unfair that the US is being asked to pay money, the inconvenient truth is that the US has been the biggest polluter of the world’s environment for about the last 100 years.

And even if we look to the future, with the rise of China and other industrialised countries, such as India, Russia and Middle Eastern oil producers, the US still remains one of the world’s biggest polluters.

But the language of environmental science as it is communicated to the general public is confusing.

The word “pollution” is something everyone can understand. They may not know all the chemical compounds that constitute a particular type of pollution, but they understand that it’s basically bad for the environment.

Arguments about “global warming”, “rising sea levels” and so on – which have come to dominate environmental debates – are less likely to engage the average person’s imagination.

The word “pollution” seems to have disappeared from the public discourse altogether.

Not only do most people not actually see with their own eyes the oceans rising, or the polar ice caps melting, these concepts often rely on people believing that the current data is reliable and the projections formulated are accurate.

Anyone can predict anything, especially if we are talking about things that might happen decades from now. Anyway, it’s too far in the future to worry too much about.

But anyone and everyone can see, smell, hear and otherwise detect the pollution that comes out of a car, or a plane, or an old industrial plant which maybe uses coal or some such fuel and which produces by-products which, if located, say, on a river bank, kills all fish in the water, or mutates them in some horrible way.

And yet there is very little data about these basic effects of pollution. Instead all the funding for environmental science seems to have gone into the scientific equivalent of astrological predictions.

Maybe it was a deliberate way of diverting the public’s attention away from what they can see for themselves, but that’s difficult to prove with or without a broad overview and lots of data.

Sensors and sensibleness

Sensors are cheap now, and so are computing systems. Anyone with a moderate level of tech skills can set up a sensor array connected to a central computer through an internet of things network.

It’s probably not as easy as it sounds, but it surely doesn’t require massive funding – just maybe a visit to or something.

Google, of course, is not short of funding, even though its motto – “Don’t be evil” – is probably the most boring slogan ever invented.

The search giant is well known for its vehicles which drive around and photograph city streets for its Maps application. Now, some of those Street View cars are being equipped with pollution detectors.

The mobile sensors collect data every 100 feet, according to CNN. Actually, it was just a 150-day experiment in one small area in the US, and it measured levels of black carbon, nitric oxide, and nitrogen dioxide.

Not sure if these specific elements are considered pollutants as such, but according to some environmental study groups, polluted air is responsible for 5.5 million deaths a year worldwide.

Leaving aside any hysterical arguments about deaths caused by the US withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, there are other studies which show that – surprise, surprise – pollution does exist.

Not only that, companies which are thought to be polluters sometimes falsify data – surprise, surprise – to make it seem like they are not as polluting as people think.

Fake news about pollution 

In China – which is now said by some people to have overtaken the US as the world’s biggest polluter – slightly-communist authorities have apparently found that a number of companies have been faking environmental monitoring data.

According to the Chi-com propaganda outlet Xinhua, one of them is a steel company which was diluting smoke samples, leading to false readings.

The company, like the others, may claim its equipment was malfunctioning, but China’s government and people are left with the problem of having to deal with smog that no one can see through and contaminated soil that no one can grow anything on.

China is currently undergoing something of a coal revolution, using the black stuff as fuel for a lot of its power stations. But not much data is widely known about any of that.

In India, another big and growing polluter, power company Tangedco is being accused of falsifying data about its environmental impact.

According to activists at the Coastal Resource Centre, a Tangedco power station in southern India is emitting a pollutant that “goes straight into the lungs and increases the risk of asthma, lung cancer and even heart attacks”.

And yet, the company has been able to produce data which is “completely different from what the central pollution control board has provided”.

In Europe, Germany has taken huge strides towards switching to clean energy. On one particular day this year, the country is said to have used more renewable energy than energy generated from fossil fuels, which are generally considered to be dirty.

The European Union is funding a programme in the Philippines to provide data on air pollution in real-time, according to

Providing examples of air pollution and the falsification of data thereof in advanced, industrialised economies is somewhat unnecessary because it’s virtually impossible to move for the number of cars, and if there aren’t any road vehicles around, a plane will be along shortly to break the silence and add to the noise pollution.

Often overlooked 

It’s interesting that the obvious is “often overlooked”, as an article on US website – about a new road system development – points out. Written by Sarav Arunchalam, a research associate professor at the University of North Carolina Institute for the Environment, the article suggests data on pollution from traffic can help mass transit.

Arunchalam says: “One aspect that it is often overlooked in the development of new road construction projects is the resulting air emissions from the cars and trucks. Air pollution from traffic-related emissions can affect human health in a variety of ways, including increased asthma, decreased lung function and heart disease.

“In the United States, 1 in 5 people live near heavily traveled roads, which makes understanding the impact of traffic emissions on public health a critical environmental health and medical issue.”

Advanced, industrialised economies are based on fossil fuels – principally oil – the extraction of which causes pollution, and the utilisation and usage of which also causes pollution. You would’ve thought that that at least is undeniable, but it’s difficult to be categoric about it given the denial of so many obvious truths.

A World Health Organization survey of 1,600 global cities found that Delhi, the capital of India, was the most polluted city in the world.

The starting point for a new solution, according to some, is big data. As cities become “smarter”, with more sensor technology used to monitor air pollution and other things, it may provide more data which people living in those cities can understand, replacing the dreamy, new-age newspeak attempting to justify a global tax on breathing.