Why industrialisation doesn’t have to cause air pollution

Jonas Grafström

September 16, 2020

Overuse of natural resources and unsustainable population growth is not a new topic. In 1968, Biologist Paul Ehrlich published the bestselling book The Population Bomb which argued that population growth must decrease. The book initiated a concern that mankind was overusing the planet’s natural resources. In 1980, economist Julian Simon and Ehrlich made a bet. Ehrlich predicted that the prices of five selected metals would rise sharply over time as humanity would face greater and greater resource scarcity. Simon betted the opposite and won. All the prices fell.

Ehrlich was and is not alone in being concerned about environmental and climate development. Today, environmentalists rightly highlight the fact that we pollute, deplete natural resources and drive species to extinction. The negative effects of industrialisation have been observed for a long time.

Surprisingly, Jerusalem might offer some insight. In a phrase for anyone interested in economic and environmental history: “And was Jerusalem built here, among these dark satanic mills?” Here, William Blake refers to the factories established in Great Britain. Blake is said to have considered industrialisation destructive to human nature and to interpersonal relations.

London, the capital of both Britain and the Industrial Revolution, was notorious for its high concentration of air pollutants. The smog created when fog and smoke from factory chimneys combined sat heavy over the London sky. In 1873, hundreds of Londoners died as a direct result of smog during a devastating week.

In 1869, Richard Wagner’s opera The Rhinegold premiered. Wagner observed industrialisation spreading during the 19th century. He worried for both humans and nature. Wagner was an inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien when writing Lord of the Rings (1954–55). Wagner’s critique of societal development is repeated by Tolkien. In the film adaptation of the books, the wizard Saruman thunders: “The old world will burn in the fires of industry. The forests will fall. A new order will rise.” Saruman’s Isengard becomes the very image of industrialisation, abuse of power and environmental destruction.

After hundreds of years of bad-quality air and environmental degradation, can things ever get better?

The air in Sweden has generally become cleaner since 1990. Emissions of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic substances, particles and heavy metals have decreased sharply since 1990. Of the 26 air pollutants that the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency tracked, 24 decreased in absolute terms, while only selenium and PCB increased.

The decline slowed in recent years, probably because reductions are more easily accomplished when starting from a higher level. For some of the pollutants, emissions fell by up to 80 per cent between 1990 and 2018. Lead (Pb) decreased most, by over 95 per cent. The decline can probably be explained by the fact that, in 1995, a lead ban was introduced for vehicles.

Ammonia (NH3) is mainly emitted from agricultural manure management. In 2018, total emissions of ammonia are estimated to be about 53,000 tons, which is equivalent to a 12 per cent reduction compared to 1990. One source of the reduction in ammonia is that animal husbandry has decreased. Imports of milk and meat also account for a part of the decrease.

Sulphur oxide (SO2) has experienced a significant decrease. In 2018, Sweden’s total sulphur dioxide emissions were just above 17,000 tons. Emissions decreased by 80 per cent compared with 1990. Sulphur precipitation has several negative environmental effects, such as the acidification of soil and water. If acidification becomes severe, sensitive animals and plants will be affected, especially in lakes and streams.

Swedish emissions of SO2 mainly came from consumption of sulphur-containing fuels, such as coal and fuel oil. The reduction has been due, among other things, to fuel changes, such as by replacing oil with high sulphur content with oil containing less sulphur, along with increased use of biofuels. The increase has not slowed down in recent years. Between 2017 and 2018, emissions fell by four per cent.

The mills seem a bit less satanic. As the data shows, improvements are happening fast. We can continue to boost our prosperity while cutting down on emissions.


Written by Jonas Grafström

Dr Jonas Grafström is a researcher at the Ratio Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.


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