• Emissions Monitoring - What, Why and How?

Air Monitoring

Emissions Monitoring - What, Why and How?

Dec 07 2021

With climate change dubbed the “greatest challenge facing the world” by famed naturalist Sir David Attenborough, an increasing focus has fallen on the greenhouse gases which contribute to it. Although the gases themselves occur naturally in our environment, they have been increasingly rapidly in concentration over the last 200 years as a direct consequence of human activity.

Unsurprisingly, then, governments around the globe have taken it upon themselves to intensify the emissions monitoring practices at their disposal. But what exactly does the term mean? Which emissions are monitored, and why? Who is responsible for collecting the data, and how do they do it? If all of these questions sound familiar to you, this informative introduction to the subject should tell you everything you need to know.

What is emissions monitoring and why is it important?

As the name suggests, emissions monitoring is the practice of measuring the emissions of various gases and chemicals as they emanate from anthropogenic sources and escape into the atmosphere. The discipline has become more widespread around the world in recent years, primarily due to the potentially catastrophic effects of continuing on our current path unimpeded.

Since the Industrial Revolution, anthropogenic activities have increasingly relied upon the combustion of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas. While this has sparked incredible advances in our scientific, technological and mechanical capabilities, it has not come without cost. That’s because the emission of certain gases and contaminants associated with fossil fuels can negatively impact air quality, pose a threat to human health and contribute to global warming.

Which emissions are being monitored?

Undoubtedly the most infamous greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide, or CO2 for short. CO2 is a natural by-product of human and animal life on Earth and is a key component in the symbiotic relationship we share with trees, plants and other vegetation. However, carbon is also stored in the bodies of defunct lifeforms and over the course of millennia, it is impacted into fossilised form at the bottom of the ocean or in underground reservoirs deep beneath the surface of the Earth.

When fossil fuels are extracted, processed and combusted, the carbon which has been accumulated over thousands of years is released in a short span of time, thus upsetting the imbalance of the environment. What’s more, other harmful gases, such as methane, nitrous oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and others are also emitted into the air. Depending on their concentrations in the troposphere, they can negatively affect human life and planetary norms, including global temperatures.

In addition to the aforementioned gases, NOx and another type of contaminant known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can react with sunlight to create ozone, which is in itself a dangerous pollutant. As such, emissions of all of these gases and substances must be continually monitored to ensure they are not allowed to reach dangerously high levels.

What are the negative outcomes of our emissions?

There are several detrimental impacts of excessive emissions of the aforementioned pollutants. Climate change and global warming are among two of the more serious side-effects, since a raise in global temperatures can play havoc with weather patterns, increase the frequency and intensity of extreme meteorological events and cause further reaching damage, as well.

This may manifest itself in the destruction of forested areas through wildfires, the melting of the polar icecaps and the rising of sea levels as a result. The latter outcome is particularly troubling for many coastal communities and low-lying island nations. In a cruel twist of fate, many of the most vulnerable populations on Earth are located in impoverished areas which have done comparatively little to contribute to climate change and have not reaped the rewards of the practices which have instigated it.

Another concerning consequence of excessive emissions is the deterioration of air quality in urban epicentres and beyond. Contaminants such as NOx, ozone and particulate matter (PM) are especially damaging to the human body and can cause irritation and inflammation of the eyes, respiratory tracts and cardiovascular systems. Those suffering from pre-existing conditions (such as asthma) are worst affected by this phenomenon and it’s thought that poor air quality is responsible for tens of thousands of premature deaths in the UK each year.

Meanwhile, air pollution does not just negatively impact humans, either. Animal populations can suffer from the same deleterious effects of inhaling contaminants, while they may also find their sleeping, eating and breeding cycles disturbed by a change in the delicate balance of their ecosystem. In the worst-case scenarios, entire species can become endangered due to an excessive amount of pollution. And while it might be generally assumed that emissions create only airborne contaminants, they can also compromise soil fertility and water quality, as well.

Who is responsible for monitoring our emissions?

In the UK, any business which is involved in the production of a large volume of emissions which may potentially damage either the environment or the organisms living within it must apply for an environmental permit from the government. They will be required to create an emissions management plan which monitors in minute detail the specific gases that they produce, as well as ensuring that they do not go above pre-agreed limits. If they do so, there is a carbon trading scheme in place which allows them to offset their excess emissions through the purchase of credits.

But while individual business owners must monitor their own emissions, they’re not the only party keeping an eye on the situation. The government has its own apparatuses which measure concentrations of contaminants and gases in our atmosphere. The reasons for doing so are twofold. On the one hand, they can verify the data reported to them by those businesses responsible for producing the emissions in the first place. On the other, they can access a more comprehensive picture of emissions across the country (and, indeed, across the world) to assess how measures intended to abate emissions are functioning in practice.

How are emissions monitored?

There are a handful of different ways of monitoring emissions, each of which carries its own attributes and is applicable depending on the gas being measured and the type of facility in question. By far the most common method, however, is through the use of continuous emissions monitoring systems (CEMS).

These sophisticated pieces of technology collect information from the point of emission on a continual basis, allowing for uninterrupted assessment of a site’s performance. For more information on CEMS and how they are being deployed in different industries around the globe, the upcoming CEM conference is scheduled to take place virtually in March 2022. The three-day event promises to examine the issue from all angles, providing plenty of insight for interested parties.

How can emissions be lowered?

It’s abundantly clear that we must curb our emissions if we are to have any chance of meeting the goals outlined at the Paris Climate Summit in 2015: namely, that of limiting global warming to a maximum of 1.5°C. In fact, a 2019 report from the UN’s Environment Programme (UNEP) stipulated that our global emissions must fall by 7.6% every single year between 2020 and 2030 to keep us on track for the 1.5°C target.

The good news is that the technology already exists for us to make the relevant changes. The initiative which would have the broadest impact on our emissions profile is transitioning to cleaner sources of energy generation as a matter of urgency. Given that oil, gas and especially coal are responsible for the lion’s share of our emissions, switching to renewables such as solar, wind, wave, hydro and geothermal power would instantly slash our emissions on an unprecedented scale.

Of course, the infrastructure is not yet in place to support such a sea change in how we source our energy, while the economic implications of fossil fuel investment means that they are unlikely to be phased out completely any time soon. As such, one additional method of reducing emissions could be to incorporate carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology into existing fossil fuel plants. This technology extracts the harmful gases from the flue at the point of emission, then liquifies them and injects them underground. While still in its infancy, CCS has shown promise in the trials to which it has been subjected to date.

The final method of curbing emissions is one which we can all follow: reducing our energy consumption and optimising that which we do use. This means transitioning to more energy-efficient forms of heating and lighting our homes (like condensing boilers and heat pumps and LED lights), as well as opting for vehicles with better fuel mileage and tailoring our habits to ensure we do not consume more power than we actually need.

Although the road ahead is a long and challenging one, it is possible to achieve the targets laid out in Paris and reaffirmed at this year’s COP26 conference in Glasgow. Emissions monitoring will inevitably play a vital role in that process, but it can only show us where we are going right and where we are going wrong. To actually enact meaningful change, it will take a gargantuan effort from governments, corporations and individuals to address our obsession with emissions. Together, we can do it.

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