As coronavirus quickly spreads around the world, it’s forcing people to stay put and wreaking havoc on the economy. Employees are either out of a job or working from home. Factories are shuttering, and with mandates to stay inside becoming the new norm, people aren’t driving or flying. Given this Stanford Earth Systems Professor Marshall Burke raised an interesting question. Ignoring for a moment all the terrible disruption happening from the virus itself, what might be the air pollution benefits, if you will, of this economic slowdown? Massive, it turns out. The World Health Organization estimates that outdoor air pollution kills 4.2 million people every year. Over one million of these deaths occur in China. But as people stay home, these last few months have seen a huge uptick in air quality, especially in hard-hit cities like Wuhan, as well as in northern Italy and a number of metropolitan areas throughout the U.S.
By Burke’s most conservative estimate, this change has saved 50,000 lives in China. To be clear, nobody is saying that the outbreak is good. It’s undeniably quite bad for our physical, mental and financial well-being. It’s also very likely bad for climate change overall, as priorities and funding are now shifting towards public health, as they should. But it’s also undeniable that this reduction in carbon emissions has had a huge impact. Our estimates are that just two months of improved air quality reduced the number of lives lost by 50,000. T hese are deaths that would have happened otherwise that did not or at least happened much later than they would have. As of late March, t here were over 25,000 coronavirus deaths worldwide, though this number doesn’t tell the whole story. This does not count the many other deaths that we will likely observe due to the economic disruption, due to congestion in the healthcare system, people with non-COVID-19 diseases not being able to get the care that they would need otherwise. I think we should not think of this as a cost-benefit calculation around epidemics. The cost of this epidemic is going to be massive – the economic costs, the health costs, the social costs.
But scientists like Burke hope that by talking about the lives saved from cleaner air, they can raise awareness about just how dangerous more subtle, insidious threats like air pollution can be. And then once the virus is contained, maybe some positive mindsets and habits will arise from the disruption. So I hope people are recognizing that there are different ways to live. We might not need as much as we thought we needed. The take is a bsolutely not that there is a silver lining to epidemics. Epidemics are terrible, but maybe they help us also learn about things we do in our everyday lives that could be improved. It can be shocking to realize that millions die every year from bad air, because unlike a pandemic, smog and soot are slow killers. The effects build over time until an individual eventually dies from cardiovascular or respiratory distress.
You’re exposed to air pollution over years and decades, whereas with the coronavirus, the impacts are almost immediate. A matter of days, not even weeks. What’s more, air pollution is an old problem. Even centuries ago, burning wood, burning coal and smelting for lead and copper extraction was poisoning our ancestor’s air. The very first air quality legislation was enacted by King Edward of England in the 1300s. So we’ve just learned to live with air pollution for a very long time. Does that mean it’s OK? Absolutely not. Air pollution is terrible. It’s dangerous. It disproportionately kills the youngest and the oldest, the sick and the infirm, the poorest and most vulnerable people. And Chinese cities have some of the worst air in the world, according to a measurement of particulate matter called PM2.5, which is the most dangerous type of pollutant.
The 2.5 refers to the particulate size, 2.5 microns, or about one thirtieth the width of a human hair. The baseline levels of PM2.5 in many Chinese cities are above one hundred and that’s measured in micrograms per cubic meter. So for comparison, most places in the U.S. have average PM2.5 levels below 10. So you can think of Chinese levels as often being 10 times worse on average. Some Italian cities like Milan face similar concerns. In the wintertime, PM2.5 levels in Milan regularly exceed 100. And this January, before the lockdowns, there were 14 days where levels exceeded 150. After the Chinese economy ground to a halt, PM2.5 levels rapidly decreased by about 20 percent. Satellite images from NASA reveal proof of this significant drop in China as well as in Italy, now considered the center of the global crisis.
Major U.S. cities like Los Angeles, Seattle and New York are also seeing major shifts, with researchers at Columbia University calculating that carbon monoxide emissions in New York City are down by over 50 percent. One unexpected effect of this rapid shutdown has been that Venice’s typically murky canals are running clear for the first time in years, as boats are no longer kicking up sediment from the ground. This doesn’t necessarily indicate that the water quality has improved, but it’s still served as a powerful reminder to many of what our cities would look like without tourism. Air quality though, has undoubtedly improved. And while there’s no data yet on how many Italian lives this has saved, it’s likely significant. The country has some of the worst air pollution in the European Union, leading to over 60,000 deaths per year. In the U.S., where about 200,000 people die from air pollution yearly, an unknown number of lives are also being spared.
In the case of China, Burke was able to arrive at his estimate for lives saved by extrapolating on data gathered during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. During this time, the Chinese government undertook a massive effort to clean up the air, shutting down factories and power plants and keeping cars off the roads. And this led to about a 25 percent improvement in air quality in Beijing over about a two month period. So it’s almost the exact same case in terms of the air quality changes as we have seen in China over the last few months. Under conservative estimates, I calculate that this two month improvement in air quality saved about 50,000 lives. Clearly though, nobody hoped that this was the way emissions reductions would come about.
It’s exactly the wrong way how we should go about decreasing emissions. It’s not about going back into our caves. Really what ought to happen for climate change is thinking hard about deploying new technologies, deploying existing technologies at scale, figuring out how to decrease emissions without what is currently happening. Right? Without crashing economies, millions of people out of work, millions of lives destroyed. As soon as the pandemic and the emergency passes, i t’s likely that industrial production will ramp right back up again, possibly to much higher levels than it was before to make up for the gap. But what I do hope is that we’ll see that there is a different way to live. For example, this period of remote working and videoconferencing could urge people to rethink their need to travel frequently. Even eliminating a few business trips and doing them remotely eliminates a huge proportion of my own personal carbon footprint. And I think the experience, my experience with the technology in the last few weeks suggests that I should absolutely be doing that.
There’s no reason to not do that. And perhaps, quantifying the benefits of cleaner air could help drive the adoption and enforcement of stricter emission standards for industrial plants such as steel mills, a major contributor of pollutants in China. It really highlights the overall health burden of our everyday actions, our sort of business as usual economies. So I agree that it would be great if we approach those problems with something like the same focus that we’re now approaching the epidemic. While emissions are down, the coronavirus outbreak will undoubtedly hurt the greater fight against climate change in a number of other ways. Some of the places that are being impacted most severely, for example in China, manufacture solar panels. They’re a large part of why solar panels are now in many places cheaper than coal and how we can actually say that a clean energy transition is possible. China is also a major manufacturer of wind turbines and lithium ion batteries, which power electric vehicles and provide energy storage.
Coronavirus-related supply chain disruptions could massively impact the price and availability of green tech. And as the global economy enters a downturn, funding for clean energy initiatives may dry up. A lot of effort and funding that could be going to climate adaptation and resilience and mitigation could be diverted to dealing with this pandemic because it is so urgent and we do need to address it.
While scientists would like to address all of our problems at once, a crisis of this magnitude means priorities will inevitably shift. Yes, we should be able to walk and chew at the same time. But frankly, yes, when you are sprinting, I think you ought to focus on the finish. So where does that leave us? To put it simply… Breathing bad air is really bad. Epidemics are also really bad.
So we should keep both of those things in mind. The risk is these numbers look like a cost-benefit calculation of an epidemic, a nd that’s absolutely not what they were meant to be. But hopefully once the epidemic subsides, it would also be useful to think what we learned more broadly about what changes in our economic behavior we can learn from this. And as governments scramble for ways to stimulate the flagging global economy, advocates like Boeve hope they do so with an eye towards environmental responsibility. We cannot be bailing out the oil, gas and coal industries and the financial sectors that prop them up. If we do that, we are guaranteeing that we’re going to see more disasters like this, because these industries are creating a product that causes climate change. First though, we need to stop the spread. Yes, let’s talk green stimulus. Yes, let’s talk about all these other things. Of course. But at the end of the day, what I think is much, much more important right now is taking the lessons, taking the ideas that lots of us in lots of different fields have generated over the years and applying it to COVID-19.