Climate Week NYC was packed with high profile pledges and policy announcements calling for hard core actions that treat carbon emissions as an extremely hazardous form of air pollution. Acting efficiently on those promises is a different matter, one that requires precise new tools for collecting data, identifying problem areas and measuring progress. And, while the main focus is on carbon emissions, other forms of air pollution require attention, too.
That's where today's sensor announcement by Google and and the recently unveiled "stealth" startup Aclima comes in.
Partly because of their immobility, conventional air quality monitors are especially limited in their ability to pinpoint problem source in complex urban environments, where airborne particulate matter leads to asthma and other serious health issues. Conventional monitors are also expensive and they fall far short in today's world of connectivity, open source data sharing and user-friendly interfaces that the general public can understand.
...to advance next generation air quality sensing technology and provide more mobile and less expensive air sensing capabilities for citizens, communities, air quality managers, businesses, and others interested in air quality issues.Aclima was tapped to lead the consortium, partnering with Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, UC Berkeley, University of Illinois at Chicago, and EPA to develop a new ultra-small sensor for detecting particulate matter.
Aclima has also been working under the radar with Google for several years, providing that company with a stationary network of 6,000 indoor air quality sensors for 21 of its offices globally.
Last June, Aclima snuck out from under stealth mode, announcing a mobile air pollution monitoring partnership with Google as well as members of the aforementioned consortium, helped along by a highly credentialed advisory board. The company describes its mission in somewhat more poetic terms than EPA's remit:
What if we could see the air around us? How many messages lie hidden in a passing breeze? Live Aware with Aclima. Our environmental sensor networks turn billions of data points into powerful insights -- making the invisible, visible.
"It's hard to manage what is difficult to measure, especially when it comes to our environment, Herzl explained by email to TriplePundit. "We see a future where sensors help us understand what we're putting into the environment and what we're putting into our bodies. This new class of tools can provide a level playing field for making decisions. Now more than ever, we need to work as a global community to cap and reduce pollution that directly affects human health and long-term resilience."
In today's announcement at the 11th annual Clinton Global Initiative, Aclima has committed to an expanded mobile air quality monitoring effort, bringing the company closer to a future in which "hyper-local air quality will be as accessible as the weather."
The new initiative pairs Aclima sensors with Google Maps in at least three major urban centers in California, starting with Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the Central Valley regions. It's an ambitious rollout, and if it succeeds the payoff will be equally significant. According to Aclima, the aim is to put the system through its paces in a "robust testing ground" where the economic impacts of air pollution will come into foucs, especially regarding the public health costs of ozone and particulate matter leading to asthma.
Google Earth's manager for outreach, Karin Tuxen-Bettman, emphasized that the end goal is to make environmental data accessible to the general public as well as to planners and regulators:
...We hope this program not only empowers people to make more informed everyday decisions, but also incites dialog about how to make long-term improvements to air quality.
The other platform consists of air quality maps overlaid on Google Earth and Google Maps, a format easily accessed and understood by the general public.
A long term resolution for non-point sources depends on emissions regulation, and as the Volkswagen scandal demonstrates, the existing technology for auditing vehicle emissions can be -- and is -- easily circumvented by auto manufacturers.
As with stationary air quality monitoring, EPA has recognized that a leap in technology and process is required to ensure that vehicles perform as promised, and in a press conference last Friday the agency outlined its plans for taking its procedures to the next level.
TriplePundit will take a closer look at EPA's plans for Volkswagen and other vehicle manufacturers later this week, so stay tuned.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.