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The Most Polluted Cities in the U.S.

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The following content is sponsored by the National Public Utilities Council

Bubble chart showing the 21 most polluted cities in the U.S. based on the American Lung Association's 2024 State of the Air report, with a bar chart showing the economic benefit of reducing PM2.5 concentrations, by sector.

The Most Polluted U.S. Cities in 2024

According to the World Health Organization, air pollution is responsible for 7 million deaths annually, and could cost the global economy between $18–25 trillion by 2060 in annual welfare costs, or roughly 4–6% of world GDP.

And with predictions that 7 in 10 people will make their homes in urban centers by mid-century, cities are fast becoming one of the frontlines in the global effort to clear the air.

In this visualization, we use 2024 data from the State of the Air report from the American Lung Association to show the most polluted cities in the United States.

What is Air Pollution?

Air pollution is a complex mixture of gases, particles, and liquid droplets and can have a variety of sources, including wildfires and cookstoves in rural areas, and road dust and diesel exhaust in cities.

There are a few kinds of air pollution that are especially bad for human health, including ozone and carbon monoxide, but here we’re concerned with fine particulate matter that is smaller than 2.5 microns, or PM2.5 for short.

The reason for the focus is because at that small size, particulate matter can penetrate the bloodstream and cause all manner of havoc, including cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, and chronic pulmonary disease.

The American Lung Association has set an annual average guideline of 9 µg/m³ for PM2.5, however, the World Health Organization has set a much more stringent limit of 5 µg/m³.

The 21 Worst Polluted Cities in the U.S.

Here are the top 21 most polluted cities in the U.S., according to their annual average PM2.5 concentrations:

RankCity, StateAnnual average concentration, 2020-2022 (µg/m3)
1Bakersfield, CA18.8
2Visalia, CA18.4
3Fresno, CA17.5
4Eugene, OR14.7
5Bay Area, CA14.3
6Los Angeles, CA14.0
7Sacramento, CA13.8
8Medford, OR13.5
9Phoenix, AZ12.4
10Fairbanks, AK12.2
11Indianapolis, IN11.9
12Yakima, WA11.8
13Detroit, MI11.7
14Chico, CA11.6
14Spokane, WA11.6
15Houston, TX11.4
16El Centro, CA11.1
17Reno, NV11.0
18Pittsburgh, PA10.9
19Kansas City, KS10.8
19Las Vegas, NV10.8

Note: The American Lung Association uses Core Based Statistical Areas in its city and county rankings, which have been shortened here to the area’s principal city, or metro area in the case of the Bay Area, CA.

Six of the top seven cities are in California, and four in the state’s Central Valley, a 450-mile flat valley that runs parallel to the Pacific coast, and bordered by the Coast and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. As a result, when pollution from the big population centers on the coast is carried inland by the wind—cities #5 and #6 on the list—it tends to get trapped in the valley.

Bakersfield (#1), Visalia (#2), and Fresno (#3) are located at the drier and hotter southern end of the valley, which is worse for air quality. The top three local sources of PM2.5 emissions in 2023 were farms (20%), forest management / agricultural waste burning (20%), and road dust (14%).

Benefit to Economy

While the health impacts are generally well understood, less well known are the economic impacts.

Low air quality negatively affects worker productivity, increases absenteeism, and adds both direct and indirect health care costs. But the flip side of that equation is that improving air quality has measurable impacts to the wider economy. The EPA published a study that calculated the economic benefits of each metric ton of particulate matter that didn’t end up in the atmosphere, broken down by sector, including utilities.

SectorBenefits per metric ton
Residential Woodstoves$429,220
Refineries$333,938
Industrial Boilers$174,229
Oil and Natural Gas Transmission$125,227
Electricity Generating Units$124,319
Oil and Natural Gas$88,838

At the same time, the EPA recently updated a cost-benefit analysis of the Clean Air Act, the main piece of federal legislation governing air quality, and found that between 1990 and 2020 it cost the economy roughly $65 billion, but also provided $2 trillion in benefits.

Benefit to Business

But that’s at the macroeconomic level, so what about for individual businesses?

For one, employees like to breathe clean air and will choose to work somewhere else, given a choice. A 2022 Deloitte case study revealed that nearly 70% of highly-skilled workers said air quality was a significant factor in choosing which city to live and work in.

At the same time, air quality can impact employer-sponsored health care premiums, by reducing the overall health of the risk pool. And since insurance premiums averaged $7,590 per year in 2022 for a single employee, and rose to $21,931 for a family, that can add up fast.

Consumers are also putting their purchase decisions through a green lens, while ESG, triple-bottom-line, and impact investing are putting the environment front and center for many investors.

And if the carrot isn’t enough for some businesses, there is the stick. The EPA recently gave vehicle engine manufacturer Cummins nearly two billion reasons to help improve air quality, in a settlement the agency is calling “the largest civil penalty in the history of the Clean Air Act and the second largest environmental penalty ever.”

Learn how the National Public Utilities Council is working toward the future of sustainable electricity.

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Emissions

Visualized: Global CO2 Emissions Through Time (1950–2022)

In this streamgraph, we break down global CO2 emissions between 1950 and 2022 using data from Berkeley Earth and Global Carbon Project.

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Preview image of a streamgraph showing global CO2 emissions between 1950-2022, broken down by region.

Visualized: Global CO2 Emissions Through Time (1950-2022)

Global CO2 emissions have grown six-fold since 1950.

But which countries have contributed the most to this growth?

In this streamgraph, created in partnership with the National Public Utilities Council, we answer that question using regional emissions data from Berkeley Earth and Global Carbon Project

Global CO2 Emissions: The Last 70 Years in Review

In the 1950s, the United States and the countries that later formed the European Union (EU) were the biggest emitters in the world, responsible for over 70% of total annual emissions.

However, this trend swiftly changed as other nations entered the fray.

For instance, China’s economic surge in the 1970s, particularly with the advent of Deng Xiaoping’s new economic strategy in 1978, triggered a notable uptick in the country’s CO2 output. From 1950 to 2000, China witnessed a surge of over 4,500% in emissions, reaching an annual 3.6 billion tonnes by 2000.

Similarly, India, Japan, and the broader Asian region, all experienced emission growth exceeding 1,000% between 1950 and 2000.

Metric tons of carbon dioxide (tCO2)195020002022Change 1950–2000Change 2000–2022
China0.1B3.6B11.4B4,529%213%
Asia (excl. China, Japan, and India)0.2B3.2B6.2B1,973%95%
United States of America2.5B6.0B5.1B136%-16%
European Union1.8B4.2B3.1B134%-26%
Rest of World0.4B2.5B2.9B465%16%
India0.1B1.0B2.8B1,500%189%
Russia0.4B1.5B1.7B256%12%
Africa0.1B0.9B1.4B876%52%
Japan0.1B1.3B1.1B1,132%-17%
South America0.1B0.8B1.1B621%34%
Canada0.2B0.6B0.6B268%-3%

Data note: 1950 was used as a beginning point for the graph due to the lack of available data for many countries prior to that year. 

As illustrated in the table above, the growth in global carbon emissions has slowed since 2000.

With that said, global emissions have still risen from 25 billion tonnes in 2000 to 37 billion in 2022, yet another all-time high. Today, over 40% of emissions come from the United States and China, underscoring their pivotal roles in shaping the global emissions landscape.

Where Are We Headed From Here?

The United Nations’ recent Emissions Gap report highlights a concerning reality: the ongoing rate of emissions combined with existing policies steers humanity towards a world that is 3°C warmer than pre-industrial levels. This contrasts starkly with the goals of 1.5–2°C agreed to in 2015.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that such a degree of warming will bring catastrophic repercussions, from severe changes in weather patterns to rising sea levels, widespread extinctions, and critical disruptions to global food and water systems.

This underscores the critical need for swift, concerted action to curb emissions and mitigate the impending environmental challenges that are potentially before us.

Learn more about how electric utilities and the power sector can lead on the path toward decarbonization here.

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Emissions

Visualized: Per Capita Electricity Emissions, by State

This graphic showcases electricity emissions by state, highlighting each state’s largest source of power.

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SHAREABLE_BC_VC_Decarb_Emissions-by-State-per-Capita_16112023

Per Capita Electricity Emissions by State

The U.S. is the second-largest CO₂ emitter worldwide, with electric power contributing significantly to the country’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

In collaboration with the National Public Utilities Council, this graphic uses data from eGrid to showcase per-capita electricity emissions by state and each state’s largest source of power.

U.S. Power Sector: Second in CO₂ Emissions

According to the Global Carbon Atlas, the top three global polluters are China, the U.S., and India—accounting for half of the world’s CO₂ emissions.

The U.S., however, leads by far in terms of CO₂ emissions per capita, with 15.3 metric tons per person, while China and India have lower rates at 7.4 and 1.9, respectively.

A substantial portion of these emissions comes from electricity generation. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the electric power sector is the second-largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, contributing 25% to the total.

Examining emissions per state, Wyoming, North Dakota, and West Virginia top the list of CO₂ emissions per capita, relying primarily on coal as their source of energy.

Here is a table showing emissions by state per capita, from highest to lowest:

StateCO2 emissions in tons per capita (2021)Biggest Source of Electricity (2021)
Wyoming68.77 tCoal
North Dakota37.08 tCoal
West Virginia35.84 tCoal
Kentucky13.40 tCoal
Montana11.78 tCoal
Indiana11.28 tCoal
Arkansas10.97 tCoal
Nebraska10.87 tCoal
Alabama10.61 tNatural Gas
Missouri10.20 tCoal
Utah9.95 tCoal
Mississippi9.57 tNatural Gas
New Mexico9.40 tCoal
Louisiana8.67 tNatural Gas
Iowa8.08 tWind
Kansas8.07 tWind
Oklahoma7.62 tWind
Texas6.96 tNatural Gas
Wisconsin6.92 tCoal
Pennsylvania 6.74 tNatural Gas
Ohio6.45 tNatural Gas
Colorado5.95 tCoal
Michigan 5.76 tCoal
Arizona5.41 tNatural Gas
South Carolina5.36 tNuclear
Nevada4.74 tNatural Gas
Hawaii4.73 tPetroleum
Florida4.70 tNatural Gas
Illinois 4.67 tNuclear
Georgia4.36 tNatural Gas
Minnesota4.28 tCoal
Alaska4.13 tNatural Gas
North Carolina4.11 tNatural Gas
Tennessee3.96 tNuclear
Rhode Island3.54 tNatural Gas
Virginia3.22 tNatural Gas
Connecticut3.13 tNatural Gas
South Dakota2.93 tWind
Oregon2.34 tHydro
Maryland2.16 tNuclear
New Hampshire1.88 tNuclear
Delaware 1.86 tNatural Gas
New Jersey 1.59 tNatural Gas
Washington1.44 tHydro
New York1.42 tNatural Gas
California1.21 tNatural Gas
Idaho1.20 tHydro
Maine1.19 tHydro
Massachusetts 1.18 tNatural Gas
District of Columbia0.09 tNatural Gas
Vermont0.06 tHydro

Interestingly, from the top 10 on our list, only Alabama doesn’t have coal as the main source of electricity.

Conversely, four of the 10 states with the lowest CO₂ emissions per capita rely more heavily on renewables, especially hydropower.

Two of the largest consumers, California and Texas, have natural gas as their main source of electricity, but also maintain a significant share of renewable sources, with 34% and 44%, respectively.

Although coal accounted for 59% of CO₂ emissions from the energy sector, it represented only 23% of the electricity generated in the United States. Natural gas accounted for 37% of electricity generation in 2021.

The Transition to Low-Emission Sources

The U.S. has set a goal to reach 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035.

Transitioning to low-emission energy sources like hydroelectricity, biomass, wind, and solar is essential for meeting U.S. climate goals.

In addition, clean energy stands out as the most significant job creator in America’s energy sector, with over 3 million Americans employed in clean energy jobs during 2021.

By embracing more renewables and nuclear power, U.S. utilities can reduce emissions and contribute to economic development.

Click here to learn more about how electric utilities and the power sector can lead on the path toward decarbonization.

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