NEWS COVID-19: SF air pollution is 38% lower than normal, but will it last?

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For the orig­i­nal in The San Fran­cis­co Chron­i­cleclick here.

Shel­ter­ing in place has plen­ty of down­sides, espe­cial­ly eco­nom­i­cal­ly, but there is one thing you can feel good about if you’ve tak­en to work­ing from home. It’s like­ly dras­ti­cal­ly reduc­ing Bay Area air pollution.

SF air pol­lu­tion is 38% low­er than it was at this time in 2019, accord­ing to the EPA. This is like­ly large­ly due to decreased trans­porta­tion, which accounts for up to 30% of the typ­i­cal U.S. household’s emis­sions, whether dri­ving or tak­ing pub­lic transportation.

Dur­ing recent quar­an­tine mea­sures in Chi­na, there was also a direct impact on pol­lu­tion lev­els. NASA and the Euro­pean Space Agency (ESA) pol­lu­tion mon­i­tor­ing satel­lites detect­ed sig­nif­i­cant decreas­es in nitro­gen diox­ide (NO2) over Chi­na when com­par­ing Jan. 1–20, 2020 (before quar­an­tine) and Feb. 10–25 (dur­ing quar­an­tine). Nitro­gen diox­ide is emit­ted by motor vehi­cles, pow­er plants and indus­tri­al facilities.

Accord­ing to NASA sci­en­tists, the reduc­tion in NO2 pol­lu­tion was first

appar­ent near Wuhan, but even­tu­al­ly spread across the coun­try. “This is the first time I have seen such a dra­mat­ic drop-off over such a wide area for a spe­cif­ic event,” said Fei Liu, an air qual­i­ty researcher at NASA’s God­dard Space Flight Cen­ter in the NASA post.

The drop in nitro­gen diox­ide did coin­cide with Lunar New Year cel­e­bra­tions, where gen­er­al­ly busi­ness­es and fac­to­ries close to cel­e­brate. Air pol­lu­tion usu­al­ly decreas­es dur­ing this peri­od and then increas­es once the cel­e­bra­tion is over, but this year the coun­try didn’t see an increase.

While the U.S. may see sim­i­lar reduc­tions in emis­sions as peo­ple are dri­ving and fly­ing less, it like­ly won’t have a last­ing effect, warned Daniel Kam­men, an ener­gy pro­fes­sor at U.C. Berkeley.

We’ve seen this after 9/​11 and dur­ing the Bei­jing Olympics,” Kam­men said. “Emis­sions went down tem­porar­i­ly but then they roared back after­ward as fac­to­ries reopened and every­one made up for lost pro­duc­tion. Look­ing at this emis­sion drop is exceed­ing­ly deceptive.”

Kam­men, who was for­mer­ly a sci­ence advi­sor to the Trump admin­is­tra­tion (he resigned over the president’s 2017 response to the Char­lottesville demon­stra­tions) and also served as an advis­er to the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, also not­ed that look­ing at just our own emis­sions doesn’t tell the whole sto­ry. For exam­ple, much of the emis­sions com­ing from Chi­na are because of U.S. goods being made there. He said he hopes peo­ple under­stand the full impact of an individual’s car­bon foot­print and that while he cau­tions get­ting over­ly opti­mistic about the decrease in pol­lu­tion, what we learn dur­ing the cri­sis could have a larg­er impact on the work­ing world.

We could be able to take some lessons from this on how to be cli­mate-smart,” Kam­men said. “If we learn from this cri­sis that we could shift a lot of our IT activ­i­ties, our con­fer­ences, etc. to use Zoom and Slack and the like then that’s a good les­son. These are ways we can decar­bonize our economy.”

While the envi­ron­men­tal impacts may not be sus­tained, they have had short-term gains. Mar­shall Burke, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor at Stan­ford’s Depart­ment of Earth Sys­tem Sci­ence, wrote that while the harms the virus will cause will like­ly far exceed any health ben­e­fits from reduced air pol­lu­tion, it may have saved the lives of between 50,000 and 75,000 peo­ple. “The reduc­tions in air pol­lu­tion in Chi­na caused by this eco­nom­ic dis­rup­tion like­ly saved twen­ty times more lives in Chi­na than have cur­rent­ly been lost due to infec­tion with the virus in that coun­try,” Burke wrote on G‑Feed, a site run by a group of sci­en­tists research­ing the rela­tion­ship between soci­ety and the environment.

While there are health ben­e­fits of the air pol­lu­tion changes, Kam­men cau­tioned about the long-term impacts to the econ­o­my that we can’t yet know that could also impact the envi­ron­ment. “There is no ques­tion that we’re see­ing big car­bon impacts due to coro­n­avirus,” he said. “We won’t be able to say the reduc­tion is a good thing because the eco­nom­ic impacts are going to be so large.”

U.C. Berke­ley researcher and pro­fes­sor Den­nis D. Bal­doc­chi also said it’s like­ly too ear­ly to under­stand any of the effects coro­n­avirus will have long term, but he agreed that we could learn from this new way to work. “Often with the envi­ron­ment, there are win­ners and losers. You try to do one good thing and one thing pops up that’s unin­ten­tion­al,” he said. “But this could show that we can func­tion dif­fer­ent­ly in the future and still be social­ly interactive.”

Bal­doc­chi also acknowl­edged the unknown impact of the increased waste right now, like every­thing from plas­tic hand san­i­tiz­er bot­tles to more take­out con­tain­ers to med­ical equipment.

It’s too ear­ly to say what the impacts are right now, but if we revis­it in March 2021 and com­pare it to this year it will be very inter­est­ing,” he said.

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