Human activities are altering the earth system at the local, regional, and global scales. It is therefore of the utmost importance to track the workings of mother earth in order to detect any changes at their early stages so that appropriate actions are taken to understand, assess, control or prevent the adverse effects. A number of deleterious effects to the environment can, at least in part, be ascribed to air pollution, namely, the thinning of the ozone layer, the related increase in the occurrence of skin cancer, the warming of the earth system, photochemical smog, acid rain/fog, acidification of soils and waters, forest decline, etc. It is therefore necessary to monitor the most relevant processes of the earth's atmosphere, namely, the energy input, the dynamics and the chemistry. In this contribution I mainly focus on the latter, specifically, on the measurement/monitoring of atmospheric compounds. To understand atmospheric chemistry and air pollution it is necessary to have reliable and accurate values of the mixing ratios of the numerous atmospheric gases and of their diurnal/seasonal variations and long-term trends. In this contribution I present an overview of the most relevant optical remote sensing techniques that are rapidly becoming the methods of choice to probe the chemical composition and physical state of the atmosphere, especially when high selectivity, sensitivity and fast-time response are required.