Air Quality – Whose Problem Is It, Anyway?

EDCUtah President & CEO Jeff Edwards likes to call the Salt Lake air quality issue the problem that everyone wants to talk about but no one wants to take responsibility for. That's because no single individual, business, group or government entity owns the problem alone.

"Our air quality is everyone's responsibility," he says. "We can't point a finger at the state, the county or businesses and say it is their problem."

Any finger pointing must turn inward because more than half of the air pollution in the Salt Lake Valley comes from cars, trucks and buses on the road, while another 32 percent comes from sources like homes and buildings. A change of habits will change the air quality. According to the Utah Division of Air Quality, if all drivers living along the Wasatch Front were to park their cars just one day per week, vehicle emissions would be reduced by 6,500 tons per year.

Events like the annual Clear the Air Challenge – dubbed Utah's "smog smackdown" by the Salt Lake Tribune – certainly help encourage the change in habits. Launched last week, the 7th Annual Clear the Air Challenge is a month-long initiative that encourages Utah residents to drive less and drive smarter during the month of July, which is one of the foulest air quality months of the year. Participants in the Challenge help improve the air quality by avoiding trips alone in their cars and by using alternative modes of transportation such as carpooling, public transit, walking, biking or trip chaining.

In 2014, approximately 7,000 people participated in the month-long Challenge and the majority of those individuals joined through teams their employers organized. Collectively, the participants saved 143,353 trips, 2.2 million miles and 668 tons of emissions. Over the six years that the Challenge has run the participants have saved approximately 666,683 trips, 9.2 million miles and 2,953 tons of emissions.

That's encouraging to Edwards and other leaders who see greater involvement by the public as a major milestone in tackling the air quality problem. To be sure, he says, there is more dialogue taking place and the state legislature has embraced the problem.

"I am really encouraged," he adds. "If you look at the actual numbers published by the state, our overall air pollution has decreased during the last decade, despite the fact that our population has increased along with the number of cars on the road. It is a challenging political issue, but it is not an uncontrollable problem."

While it is true that industry contributes 10-15 percent of the air pollution in the Salt Lake Valley, Edwards believes that focusing on heavier regulations will not be as impactful as changing individual habits with regard to transportation. It all boils down to this: drive less, pollute less.

Hence, the voluntary Clear the Air Challenge is an impactful, fun way to encourage individuals and teams to track what they are doing to reduce their air quality impact and record it in a system that recognizes their efforts. The Challenge is made possible by a strong partnership that includes the Salt Lake Chamber, TravelWise, the Utah Clean Air Partnership (UCAIR), Penna Powers, Intermountain Healthcare, Fidelity Investments, Rio Tinto and Salt Lake Comic Con.

To participate, sign up at You may join an existing team or start your own team with co-workers, neighbors or friends. Log every trip you save in the online tracker and compete for great prizes by racking up the trips you eliminate, the miles you save, and the emissions you reduce. The winning teams get bragging rights and receive the Challenge Trophy to display throughout the year.

Utahns have solved difficult problems in the past and there are high expectations that the state's air quality problem can be solved as well. It's a quality of life issue that individuals and leaders are taking seriously. As Edwards notes, "We certainly have a ways to go, but it is good news that we recognize we have problem and there are tangible things being done about it." He points to the Clear the Air Challenge and numerous other efforts, including the state's strong and growing transit system, emissions reductions by businesses, an effort to bring low sulfur fuels into the state and a program that encourages residents to upgrade the old cars they are driving in order to reduce emissions, or if they have more than one car, to drive their newest cars during the bad air days.

Salt Lake City committed to saving more than 300,000 pounds of air pollution this year by promoting its Idle Free City program. On June 30, the city unveiled a new website and "Idle Free City" signs to be posted at businesses and schools around town.