North Carolinians continue to breathe the cleanest air in decades as emissions of harmful air pollutants like nitrogen oxides and particulate matter reach historic lows, according to the latest update of the “Air Quality Trends in North Carolina” report published by the N.C. Division of Air Quality.
The report, released today, attributes the decline of air pollution emissions to efforts by state leaders, regulatory agencies, electric utilities, industry, and the public to significantly address air quality concerns in recent years.
“Getting to this point was no accident. There’s been more than 50 years of hard work by our dedicated staff and a wide variety of stakeholders that have led to this success,” said Mike Abraczinskas, Director of the Division of Air Quality. “This comes even as the state’s population and economic activity grew, showing that environmental stewardship and economic growth work hand-in-hand.”
The report found that emissions of Criteria Air Pollutants, regulated under the federal Clean Air Act, have dropped precipitously statewide from 1990 through 2020. Specifically, emissions fell:
- 94% for sulfur dioxide (SO2)
- 73% for carbon monoxide (CO)
- 72% for oxides of nitrogen (NOx)
- 49% for fine particulate matter (PM2.5)
- 68% for volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
A major source of these declines is electricity production. More of North Carolina’s power is coming from clean sources such as utility scale solar development, and energy efficiency improvements in homes and buildings. The cars, trucks and other vehicles on North Carolina highways also emit far less pollution than older vehicles, thanks to improved engine and fuel standards and more advanced emissions controls. From 1990 through 2020, CO, NOx, and VOC emissions have declined by 80%, 69%, and 84%, respectively, from these “on-road” sources of air pollution. The state expects to see further reductions from the transportation sector in the coming years due to the growing adoption of electric vehicles.
High concentrations of air pollutants can impact public and environmental health. Ground-level ozone (formed from VOCs and NOx) and particulate matter can worsen asthma and contribute to heart and lung conditions. Pollutants like SO2 are associated with haze and acid rain. Greenhouse gases contribute to climate change, and various hazardous air pollutants are known carcinogens. North Carolina has seen reductions in emissions of each of these classes of pollutants.
Some additional findings of the updated report:
- The number of ozone exceedance days statewide continues to be low. From 2013-2022, North Carolina recorded just one day of “Code Red” or above for ozone in the state, compared to 119 such days from 2003-2012.
- Visibility in our national and state parks has improved markedly in the last 20 years, due to reductions in emissions of SO2, NOx and other air pollutants that scatter light. For example, in 2021, visitors could see as far as 117 miles at Great Smoky Mountains National Park during an average clear day, compared to just 54 miles in 1996.
- Greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion have decreased by 21% from 2005 to 2018 due to both a shift in fuel use and increased energy efficiency. During this same period, North Carolina’s population and real Gross State Product grew by 19% and 24%, respectively.
- Over the past 28 years, combined emissions of federally designated Hazardous Air Pollutants and state-designated Toxic Air Pollutants have fallen by more than 100 million pounds, a 79% drop.
The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Air Quality regularly updates and publishes the “Air Quality Trends in North Carolina” report. This report is an update of the previous report published in October 2020. It includes updated data on air emissions and incorporates information from the latest update to the North Carolina Greenhouse Gas Inventory.
North Carolina has been in attainment with every federal National Ambient Air Quality Standard since August 2015.