"if you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it."
A famous quote in the business world that has gained notoriety for both the successes and failures that it has created in its wake. For the health of the planet, the rise of this concept has proven to be overwhelmingly positive. For example, measuring carbon dioxide, temperature and other proxies like the extent of Arctic ice has forever changed our relationship with fossil fuels. Measurement of bacteria and lead in drinking water, radon in indoor air, and mercury in fish have all had tremendous impacts on not only how we interact with the world, but our health. Without the power of measurement, these hazards would be invisible to us, such as the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak in London.
Since the last 1800's there has been another silent killer that humans let go virtually unnoticed for decades. Many often complain about its impact on keeping a clean home, but its real impact is closer to that of the Grim Reaper. 5.5 million, the number of people that die prematurely due to air pollution each year. Add to this a number of non-lethal impacts such as asthma, weight gain, acid rain, and skin aging.
For one country, China, the impacts are startling. Asthma ratings up 40 percent over the last 20 years, prevalence up to 11% in some cities and 1.6 million related deaths annually (equivalent to 1 in every 1,000 people). Even more startling is no one even knew how bad the pollution was until 2008 when the US Embassy in Beijing installed a rooftop air-quality monitor that would tweet out data every hour. For the first time, everyone in the world, including the citizens of Beijing, understood just how bad their air was, which has exceeded the bounds of the USEPA's air quality index numerous times since then.
As is documented more fully in this Wired article, there was a considerable 'back and forth' between the Chinese government and US Embassy over these measures, given the much bleaker outlook they provided than the government's official position. However, as they say, the cat was now out of the bag. The Chinese government finally relented in 2013 amid public pressure and began installing its own air monitoring stations around the country. As per the quote, with monitoring comes the opportunity to improve and within a year Premier Li Keqiang had publically declared war on air pollution. China's world-leading investment in renewable energy and closure of 240 steel mills despite the potential unrest of laying off 1 million workers are two of many actions the government is taking to make serious and meaningful reductions in air pollution.
For the environment, measurement serves as the foundation for progress. Real-time monitoring of electricity and natural gas usage is a leading best practice gaining worldwide adoption allowing corporate energy managers identify sources of waste and unlock reduction opportunities. Placing sensors on waste containers to determine when pick-up is required, as the City of Boston and P&G currently do, enables reductions in labor and resources involved with transportation pick-ups. Measuring water allows management systems to flag down operators when there's been a pipe break that would otherwise go unnoticed for until the next bill (yes this happens). For managers of environmental sustainability, measurement is your best friend. Not only does it serve as a guide for usage of limited resources, but also is the backbone for communicating benefits in financial terms.
Interactive Tableau Visualization
I have included an easy-to-use Tableau visualization with the US Embassy in Beijing in a daily averaged format for those wanting to dive into the data. With the exception of a few recent 'Air Apocalypse' events, the trend is generally positive with monthly averages now more likely to fall in the Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups classification than in past years. With the continued closure of steel mills around Beijing and greater adoption of renewable energy throughout China, one would hope for this downward trend to continue.