Experts Say Dirty Air Will Return When Lockdowns End

Enjoy the clean air and blue skies brought by the pandemic lockdowns while you can.

(AP Photo/Nick Ut, File)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — With the global pandemic forcing people indoors and pausing industrial activity, cities are seeing the cleanest air in decades. Air pollution may return once the world recovers and urban centers are bustling again, but experts say another outcome is possible.

Worldwide, more than 1.5 million people have contracted the novel coronavirus and nearly 100,000 have died, according to Johns Hopkins University.

In the U.S. — where at least 457,000 positive cases and more than 16,000 deaths are reported —business closures and travel restrictions have slowed commerce to a trickle.

But stay-at-home orders also mean emptier roadways and temporarily shuttered industries, leading to reduced emissions of dangerous pollutants into our skies.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration projected Tuesday a nearly 8% decrease in carbon dioxide emissions this year, the biggest drop since 1990, due to the economic downturn.

Last month, Los Angeles County — where traffic and smog are ever-present for its 10 million residents — experienced its longest stretch of “good” air quality days since 1995, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data.

Yifang Zhu, environmental health scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in an interview the reduction in air pollution will unfortunately be short-lived once lockdown orders are lifted.

“If we go back to business as usual, emissions will go back and pollution will come back,” Zhu said. “The effect is very quick. Once traffic jams come back, emissions come back. [Current conditions don’t] have any lingering effect.”

William Vizuete, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, agreed. In an interview, he said air quality is impacted by a number of factors including meteorological conditions, but that regular commercial and residential traffic on roadways will usher the return to hazy skies.

“The atmosphere will get quickly to what it was before,” said Vizuete. “The formation of ozone happens on the order of hours. You can pretty quickly get back to pre-Covid-19 levels.”

Zhu said it’s difficult to predict how soon people will return to regular school and work commutes — if they have jobs to return to — after the pandemic, but that people should push to keep skies clean.

“We don’t need a pandemic to maintain the clean air we’re breathing today,” Zhu said, adding that governments could adopt clean energy and strict regulations to tamper down pollution for the long term.

Bill Magavern, policy director of LA-based Coalition for Clean Air, said he expects pollution in LA to return quickly after pandemic-related orders are lifted.

“If everyone resumes their old driving and flying habits, and industries crank emissions back up to pre-Covid levels, I would expect large swaths of pollution to reappear within days,” Magavern said in an interview. 

But the outcome could be different if employers embrace telecommuting and if municipalities and states adopt and enforce strict emission standards, he added.

“Let’s get back to work when it’s safe to do so, but let’s do it in a way that we can continue to enjoy the benefits of clean air,” Magavern said. “Improving air quality will help protect people from respiratory infections and other diseases.”

But Magavern noted the Trump administration has hampered those goals, pointing to the recent finalizing of federal rules that will roll back vehicle fuel-economy standards nationwide.

The stricter Obama administration-era standards were adopted to fight climate change and encourage auto manufacturers to produce electric cars and vehicles that emit less dangerous pollutants.

“The federal government is going in the opposite direction, rather than thinking about using these changes forced on us to put in place long-term solutions,” said Annie Beaman of Our Children’s Earth Foundation.

Beaman said in an interview the Trump administration move will help heavy-polluting industries evade monitoring and reporting of emission levels after the global economy recovers from the pandemic.

Marc Carrel, president and CEO of Breathe LA, said he’s seeing more residents walking outside and riding bikes in neighborhoods and that LA officials can help maintain those behaviors by installing bike lanes and ensuring pedestrian safety. 

But large-scale changes need to be embraced, too, if states such as California are to meet their clean energy goals, Carrel said.

Diesel-burning trucks and freight trains at the Port of LA and Long Beach — where nearly half of U.S. imports are processed — should run on cleaner fuels as part of a nationwide switch to renewable energy.

“With cleaner energy we hope to maintain what’s going on now in our environment,” Carrel said in an interview. “But this doesn’t just happen. We have to make an investment and a concerted effort.”

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