Holy Week came and went. It was one of the oddest and most unforgettable in our lifetimes. While millions of people on nearly every continent observed the spiritual traditions of the week, they did so in a way they never would have imagined. They, at least most, at the behest of their spiritual leaders, did not go through the normal rituals of the season. Instead, they remained at home, venturing out only when completely necessary. In making this decision, they made something happen; something no one could have predicted.
By observing shelter in place edicts---issued by governors and mayors across the country---millions of people who ordinarily would have clogged the roads with their cars, instead stayed at home. For air travelers, same thing. The result, cleaner air in cities across the country, including Denver. Chalk one up to the law of unintended consequences.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported atmospheric particulates down between 36 percent and 49 percentin areas of Denver. For Keah Schuenemann, the dramatic improvement in air quality is not altogether surprising but certainly welcome. The Metropolitan State University of Denver meteorology professor called it a “direct effect of aerosols being removed.” Aerosols are the microscopic particulate matter that remains in the air from exhaust.
“The haze has gone away,” she said, and it didn’t take much at all. But practically speaking, she said, it’s “a pretty short-term removal.” When factories begin churning, when cars get back on the road and when planes return to the air, the same levels of poor air quality will also return.
Planes are even bigger polluters than cars. Their carbon footprint is enormous. It is estimated that one cross-country flight can produce the same amount of carbon dioxide as the average person will produce in the course of an entire year. On one recent day last week, though, air travel plunged to levels echoing post-9/11 days. The Transportation Security Administration reported fewer than 100,000 travelers flew, down by a whopping two thirds of a normal day.
In American cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Phoenix, the unintended benefit of cleaner air became evident. But in places like China, including Wuhan, where the virus began, Italy and India---all places where government lockdowns were enforced, the difference was dramatic.
The Chinese crackdown, according to NASA, resulted in a 25 percent decrease in air pollution in that country. With a dramatic decrease in car, truck and air traffic, coupled with sudden shutdowns in coal-fired power plants and polluting factories, nitrogen dioxide---a by product of burned fossil fuel---simply plunged.
In India, long considered a model for the wrong way to regulate air quality, the lockdown began on March 25th. Within days, thanks to curbs on car, truck, rail, air travel and factory shutdowns, pollution levels fell by nearly 60 percent according to the Center for Science and Environment.
In India’s major cities, including Delhi, stultifying pollution is a normal part of life. So bad are the fumes and resulting smog from road traffic and factories, that buildings take on the form of silhouettes. In winter months, in all directions of the compass, Indian air quality far exceeds levels considered unhealthy by American standards. Blue skies, a memory on all but the windiest days, have suddenly become almost expected, along with nighttime starry skies.
But the lack of cars on the road, planes in the air and factories belching out toxic fumes, won’t last forever. The improvement in air quality, one day soon, may ultimately be ephemeral, particularly as the Trump Administration moves to roll back emission standards on new vehicles.
Reversing an Obama-era law requiring new cars and trucks to meet higher mileage standards, the Trump administration gave the OK for automobile manufacturers to build newer models with lower mileage requirements. Essentially, it paved the way for higher, gas-guzzling vehicles to hit the road. “We are delivering on President Trump’s promise to correct the current fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions standards,” said Andrew Wheeler, head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
The move, one of many by the Administration that undoes Obama-era policies, will theoretically allow more aerosols to fill the air and create potential life-quality issues for the elderly along with respiratory challenges for those suffering from breathing conditions.
But dirtier air will present a problem for everyone, said Schuenemann. “Haze is really what hurts your lungs---particulate matter.” The U.S. is different from the rest of the world. “China and India, they’re allowed to pollute. It’s hard to understand the (administration’s) motivation. It’s very frustrating,” she said.
Air quality was not the only improvement that the COVID-19 shelter in place mandates impacted. In Venice, Italy, locals have noticed something not normally seen in the city’s famous canals. For the first time in years, fish have become visible in the normally heavy-trafficked canals. Scientists, however, are not ready to ascribe this phenomenon to the shutdown, but rather to the absence of gondolas and other boat traffic in the water. Still, while boat traffic is down, so too, is the other traffic that normally clogs the city’s streets and that has led to improvements in air quality.
The unintended consequences of the shelter in place policies caused by the Coronavirus may be one of the few---perhaps, only---bright spots of this pandemic. But they do remind the world that environmental challenges can and do have solutions.