Whether you’re a fan of Utah’s so-called Greatest Snow on Earth or not, winter is here, and so are the Wasatch Front’s famous inversions.
Every year almost without fail, we are hit with inversions as we prepare for the busy holiday season. But what are inversions? And what can we do collectively to clean our air?
Inversions form due to our unique geography and colder winter temperatures but, like many environmental issues, our addiction to fossil fuels doesn’t mix too well with this natural phenomenon — quite literally.
Typically, during the majority of the year, air temperatures are warmer near the surface of the earth and cooler closer to our atmosphere but, during winter inversions, these temperatures invert, and a warmer cap of high-altitude air traps colder air and man-made pollution in the airshed we all breathe.
As inversion events continue, fine particles — called PM 2.5s — from vehicle emissions, area sources (homes and buildings) and industry concentrate in the surface-level inversion layer, worsening our air quality.
If you have lived on or near the Wasatch Front for some time, you probably have seen lists of steps we can take individually in our daily lives to help clean our air during inversions.
• Lowering your thermostat.
• Carpooling or not using your car at all.
• Working from home.
• Combining your errands into one trip.
• Buying electric vehicles and using public transportation.
While we encourage you to participate in these individual actions if you can, these steps can only take us so far. To truly make progress we need toward cleaning up our airsheds, we must take systematic steps to re-envision the way we live and, this time, make it accessible to everyone.
Access to reliable transportation is key to life-changing opportunities for many low-income families throughout the Wasatch Front. Until our public transportation system catches up to the needs of communities, access to a car is essential to get to work, school and basic necessities for many who call Utah home. Utah must invest in accessible and affordable public transit to lessen our reliance on vehicles — not in highway expansions.
What about electric vehicles? In a recent report from Kelley Blue Book, the average price for a new car (of any powertrain) was $48,281. At the same time, the average new electric car price was $64,249. While significant steps have been taken to reduce the cost of electric vehicles and increase accessibility, we are still a long way from everyone accessing this promising technology.
Area source emissions
Currently, mobile sources such as vehicles account for 120 tons of pollution, while area sources like homes and buildings account for 90 tons of pollution per year. We know as the vehicle sector continues to electrify, area sources will soon surpass them to become the top polluter of our airshed if we do not take action.
This year, the Utah Legislature is poised to set residential and commercial building standards that will be in effect for the next six years. We must, as a state, adopt the most energy-efficient and sustainable building codes available to protect our air quality and our wallets.
What about existing homes? For existing homes, especially for underserved communities, there must be accessible and easy-to-participate-in incentive programs to help bring outdated homes up to cleaner and more efficient standards.
Industry emissions from sources like refineries, mines, power plants and waste facilities are Utah’s third major source of emissions. While they may be third in line compared to vehicles and area sources, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep an eye on them.
Much of the progress we have made so far came from federal initiatives and, depending on the administration, attempts to reverse regulations could occur. We must continue to keep industries accountable by encouraging transparency and compliance with federal and state standards.
Continuing our progress toward clean air will take collective and systematic effort. It will take adopting and implementing new habits and policies to ensure our air is clean for future generations to come.
We encourage you to participate in this year’s upcoming legislative session, which starts on January 18, and in year-round opportunities to shape change by following and volunteering for groups like HEAL Utah.
Meisei Gonzalez is an environmental justice communicator and advocate who oversees communications for the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah (HEAL Utah).