City announces plan to expand air pollution monitoring, cut greenhouse gases by 60%

By 2025, Mayor Lori Lightfoot wants to have a “robust outdoor air quality monitoring network” and also is pushing for a big emissions cut by 2040.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during the announcement of Chicago’s 2022 Climate Action Plan on Earth Day at Plant Chicago in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, Friday morning, April 22, 2022.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during the announcement of Chicago’s 2022 Climate Action Plan on Earth Day at Plant Chicago in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, Friday morning, April 22, 2022.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration plans to put additional air quality monitors across Chicago to better track pollution leading to deaths, illness and exasperation of the climate crisis.

By 2025, Chicago would “establish a robust outdoor air quality monitoring network,” according to a draft of Lightfoot’s climate action plan reviewed by the Sun-Times.

The broader climate plan includes aspirational policy goals for reducing air pollution, including a target of cutting harmful greenhouse gases by more than 60% by 2040. The plan builds on and adds to goals previously set through previous climate and sustainability city initiatives.

“We are uniquely positioned to address the climate concerns and needs of our residents and bolster efforts to create more resilient, healthier and safer communities,” Lightfoot said at an event marking Earth Day Friday. “One of the biggest goals we’ve outlined in the plan is to reduce emissions in Chicago by 62% by 2040 and folks we can get there.”

The monitors would add to a handful of highly sensitive official devices that are used by the Environmental Protection Agency to determine if the city and surrounding metro area is meeting air quality standards under the national Clean Air Act. While few details are provided, monitors may be located near Chicago Transit Authority or schools, the report said.

“Measuring and reporting air quality at various sites such as CTA bus and L stations, schools or city facilities will demonstrate the impact the city’s climate investments and the modernization of planning policies,” the draft report said. “A monitoring network will help identify where more action is needed to ensure all residents have access to healthy air.”

The monitor expansion would be initially funded with federal dollars and overseen by the city’s health department, which is exploring the idea with the EPA, Chicago Chief Sustainability Officer Angela Tovar said in an interview.

Residents’ exposure to ozone and fine particle pollution can lead to a host of health issues, including respiratory illnesses and heart disease, the report noted.

The EPA uses highly sophisticated air sensors and performs computer modeling to determine if the Chicago metro area is meeting standards set by the national clean air law. These sensors are separate from the lower-grade, less expensive air monitors that are becoming more commonly used by community groups concerned about local air quality.

Last summer, Microsoft launched a project that installed air monitors on more than 100 CTA bus shelters across the city. Those sensors also are not reliably accurate for regulatory oversight of air pollution limits.

The question community and environmental groups ask is what will the city do with the data if the monitors are installed, said Anthony Moser, a member of the McKinley Park group Neighbors for Environmental Justice.

“Measuring air quality is fine but if they’re not measuring things affecting air quality, it’s useless,” Moser said. “Without tying it to action to improve air quality, you’re really just telling people how bad they got it.”

The broader policy goals in Lightfoot’s soon-to-be-released climate plan will also focus on promoting use of renewable energy, reducing waste and moving toward zero-emission public transit and other transportation.

Brett Chase’s reporting on environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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