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How Can We Keep the Air Clean After COVID-19 Exits?

(Rick Sander, CEO, Tuesday, May 5, 2020)

One of the benefits (if you can call it that) of the COVID-19 pandemic is cleaner air. With everyone driving less and with large number of factories and businesses closed, significantly less fossil fuel (the primary source for electrical energy in most of the world) are being consumed. In industrial areas in Europe, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels have dropped up to 40%. In Los Angeles during the month of March 2020, there were twenty-one straight days of air quality in the “green” (the “good” category in the US EPA Air Quality Index), with NO2 levels reduced by over 30%. And the impacts in China as shown in the satellite images below were just as significant. Given that air pollution is the fourth-largest threat to human health according to the World Economic Forum and COVID-19 has been shown to be aggravated by air pollution, the health benefits of reduced NO2 are significant.

So how do we keep these benefits after the economic impacts of COVID-19 dissipate? While automobiles are not the only producer of air pollution, in many areas they are one of the largest polluters. A 2013 US study indicated that transportation contributed more than half of all CO and NO2 pollution, and nearly one-quarter of hydrocarbon air pollution. Switching to electric vehicles (EV) is an obvious answer to this issue, but it is also dependent on the “cleanliness” of the electrical generation infrastructure; for instance, switching from a new internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle powered by gasoline to an EV whose charging electricity comes from an old (i.e., “dirty”) coal-fired power plant would probably be a net negative. Even with that, switching to EVs would move the air pollution from cities (where most cars are driven) to the powerplant, which helps the people in those cities.

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