TL;DR — Both air pollution and climate change are environmental issues that extend far beyond where pollution sources or contributing factors may originate. Because they cannot be contained in one area, it is essential that different levels of government — national, state, and local — cooperate to improve air quality and mitigate climate change. The work occurring at different levels of government — from US EPA state implementation plans to AB 617 in California — both helps to connect environmental action across these spheres and inspires innovative initiatives for further action to mitigate these environmental crises.

Air pollution and climate change are far-reaching issues

Air pollution is an issue that cannot be relegated to one neighborhood, city, or region because it can affect public and environmental health far from where it is first emitted.

Similarly, climate change is a larger-scale issue whose impacts are seen on both micro and macro levels, and which cannot be addressed without acknowledging both its local and its big-picture impacts.

Because of this, it is essential that different levels of government cooperate in efforts to improve air quality and mitigate climate change.

Why air pollution and climate change do not only affect where they are first emitted

Air pollution can travel from its source to other areas via wind, meaning pollutant emissions can significantly affect the air quality in different areas. This is referred to as interstate air pollution transport by the USEPA, where air pollution in any area involves the combination of locally emitted pollutants and upwind emissions.

Interstate air pollution transport refers to pollution from upwind emission sources that impact the air quality in a different state downwind.” 


The extent to which wind can spread air pollution has been demonstrated during large wildfires in recent years, where pollution from wildfires in the western United States reached states as far as New York and resulted in some of the worst 24-hour average Air Quality Index (AQI) values across the country.

While wildfires have the most obvious detrimental impact in their immediate surroundings, the air pollution produced by their smoke can affect communities hundreds and even thousands of miles away. (Image source: Wikipedia)

Read our blog here for more information on just how extensively wildfires affect our air and what we can do to protect public health during these burns.

Air pollution does not just stay right where it was released, but can affect the air quality miles away, so it is crucial that different levels of government cooperate in monitoring the air.

Climate change is an even more extreme example of this as none of CO2’s impacts are local, but each emissions source contributes to the globe’s surplus of greenhouse gases.

How local, state, and federal government cooperation strengthens the work to improve air quality

No one government entity has the authority to regulate all of the many sources that contribute to air pollution or climate change in a given region; thus, it is essential that they cooperate to work towards a healthier environment.

One type of regulatory body known as air districts have limited jurisdiction to regulate emissions in their region. One study looking at the air district known as South Coast Air Quality Monitoring District (SCAQMD) found that only 14% of nitrogen oxide emissions came from fixed sources that were under the jurisdiction of the district, while a large portion of emissions came from federal sources — like interstate trucks and ocean-faring ships — that the district cannot regulate.

An article focusing on Houston, Texas used data in collaboration with NASA to determine how much of the city’s air pollution was due to regional pollution drifting in. The study found that one of the biggest contributors to Houston’s poor air quality was the pollution from wildfire smoke in Montana and Idaho. 

The researchers emphasized that because the local and state governing bodies who oversee Houston can only control air quality in that region, they must make up for incoming air pollution by reducing their local emissions to control the overall pollution levels that residents are exposed to.

Officials are discovering that air pollution is not just a local problem, however. Regional and continental air circulation patterns frequently carry pollution from one area to another. But whether pollution is from a local factory or from another state, cities are expected to meet EPA standards.”

— EarthData, NASA

With respect to climate change, the federal government (US EPA) has limited authority to regulate CO2 emissions due to a Supreme Court decision, but by working with local and regional agencies to implement stricter air pollution regulations they could indirectly bring down carbon emissions.

Learn more about how the co-benefits of improving air quality can help drive climate action here.

Cooperation between the federal and state levels under the Clean Air Act

Under the Clean Air Act in the United States, cross-governmental cooperation occurs between federal and state agencies to regulate air quality.

The act provides for state-EPA partnerships for the regulation of common pollutants. States must develop state implementation plans to outline how they plan to meet emission standards. In some states, like California, the state and local air pollution districts work together on these plans.

These plans also must ensure that the state’s emissions do not significantly contribute to air pollution in a state that is downwind.

When it comes to the regulation of toxic pollutants, the US EPA outlines national limits for each pollution and major pollution sources. Each state’s program must have either equivalent or more stringent standards than the federal ones, and the state may either partially or fully delegate EPA authorities to enforce these standards.

AB 617 is an example of a policy specific to one state — in this case, California — that has served as a model for federal air quality monitoring work such as the US EPA’s Enhanced Air Quality Monitoring for Communities (EAQMC) grants and IRA funding.

AB 617 was introduced in 2017 in order to address air quality concerns in communities that suffer from disproportionately high air pollution.

CARB implemented the Community Air Protection Program (CAPP) in response to AB 617 to support air quality monitoring in the most impacted communities, especially those that have been impacted by historical discrimination and environmental racism.

Read our blog here for more information about why both air quality and climate change are environmental justice issues.

While AB 617 cannot work alone to solve these issues, it does act as an example of how community air quality monitoring can be implemented and how governments and communities can work together to improve air quality.

California’s joint implementation of an ambitious climate change policy agenda together with a targeted effort to mitigate inequities in both pollution exposure and policy participation could serve as a model for other jurisdictions” 

— “Climate policies, environmental justice, and local air pollution” report from Economic Studies at Brookings

The importance of state and local government work

While state and local government work may be thought of as falling under the federal government, they can actually be spheres where innovative work could guide federal policy development.

Work to reduce air pollution and mitigate climate change at the state level can create a guide for other states as well as work at different levels of government.

For example, states have taken the lead when it comes to setting renewable portfolio standards, meaning that a certain percentage of electricity from different utility sources must come from a renewable source. States have also created innovative emissions trading systems to reduce carbon.

Action at the state and local government level is also highly important for reducing pollutants that contribute to air pollution and climate change for those communities that are most affected — namely, low-income communities of color. This work can help inspire broader action and support for mitigating these environmental crises.

This work can also help to reveal potential issues that can be avoided in future environmental work, such as with California’s cap-and-trade program as described below.

California’s pioneering cap-and-trade program offers a mix of lessons for national leaders: while it has generated billions of dollars for state climate investments and contributed to meeting early emission reduction targets, experts have highlighted concerns including the oversupply of allowances, price and revenue instability, and unclear capacity to drive deep emission cuts in the long term. In addition, environmental justice advocates have criticized the distribution of impacts and benefits under the state’s market-based frameworks — an issue state legislators have addressed, perhaps belatedly, through equity-focused funding and air quality programs.”

— Wilson Center

Climate change mitigation at different levels of government

Specific states or other regional entities that pioneer climate initiatives can help act as role models to support the more extensive implementation of these initiatives and broader climate action.

One example is the Clean Mobility Options program in California which involves a $30 million investment in low-carbon transportation in underserved communities, specifically for pilot projects involving electric-car sharing, bike sharing, and vanpools, among other initiatives. The program aims to address the lack of access that underresourced populations have to these alternative transportation alternatives as well as to decrease transportation-related emissions.

Electric buses, such as the one shown above that is part of the Metropolitan Transport Authority’s all-electric vehicle program that began in 2020 in New York City, are a low-carbon form of transportation that help make a difference in mitigating air pollution and climate change. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

New York passed an ambitious climate policy in June 2019 to work towards carbon-free electricity and zero emissions by 2040 and 2050, respectively. The state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act also required at least 35% of these investments in clean energy to be made in underserved communities.

A number of other states have set 100% clean energy goals, with even more working towards that target. With these targets in mind, one-third of the country’s electricity will be from renewable sources by 2050, and up to three-quarters will be renewable in the western United States.

Working together to mitigate air pollution and climate change

Air pollution and climate change are both issues that transcend neighborhood, city, state, and even national boundaries; thus, government cooperation between these levels is a crucial part of making a meaningful impact in improving air quality and mitigating climate change.

While a variety of examples of this work exist as we’ve discussed, we also look forward to seeing even more cooperation across these levels to truly address air quality and climate change as the global issues that they are.

Interested in measuring air quality for cleaner air, improved physical and mental health, and a healthier climate? Get in touch with our team to learn more about our Sensing-as-a-Service solution for governments, businesses, and community organizations, using our Clarity Node-S monitors and modules that do not depend on infrastructure like WiFi or power — making them especially resilient during environmental disasters.