Can we keep clean skies after COVID-19 is over?

Does the end of the pandemic have to mean the end of clean air?

Frontier Group summer intern Christiane Paulhus wrote this blog post.

Los Angeles is infamous for smog and pollution. But during the economic shutdown forced by COVID-19, L.A. residents welcomed clear and blue skies. The emergence of clear skies in L.A. and elsewhere has been one of the few welcome side effects of the COVID era, which raises the question: Does the end of the pandemic -- whenever it happens -- have to mean the end of clean air?

During the COVID-19 lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders, cleaner skies resulted from the near-elimination of non-essential travel and the halt in daily commutes -- as well as a slowdown in industrial activities. Southern California and other locations around the country saw decreases in emissions of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) from road traffic and fossil fuel combustion. During the period between mid March and early May, NO2 emissions in L.A. dropped by 14 percent. Indeed, for a time Los Angeles had among the cleanest air in the world. 

COVID-19 is a devastating, acute public health threat, but dirty air is an important chronic threat in its own right. Before COVID-19 took over our world and normal lives, air pollution was killing 7 million people in the world and 100,000 people in the United States per year. In the Los Angeles area specifically, from 2011 to 2013 an estimated 1,341 people died annually from breathing polluted air. 

As the country reopens, driving levels could tend back toward pre-pandemic levels. By mid-June, residents of 29 states were already driving more than they had before the pandemic began in mid-February (though not as much as they would in a typical summer). 

If those trends continue, the clean skies we have experienced could be a thing of the past. How can cities keep that from happening?  

In major cities across the United States the drop in NO2 emissions occurred as commuter and school traffic dropped -- showing the significance of  transportation as a pollution source. Therefore, it is important to ensure that the “new normal” that emerges after coronavirus is one that emphasizes forms of transportation that are less polluting. 

One effective way to reduce pollution from transportation is to invest in modes that run on electricity. At the beginning of June, Racine, Wisconsin, was awarded over $3 million from the Federal Transit Administration’s Low or No Emission Vehicle Program to implement electric buses -- the latest in a growing parade of American cities moving toward clean public transportation. This grant will go toward purchasing electric buses as well as charging stations. These electric buses are anticipated to take to the road mid-2021.

Another key step toward pollution reduction is to take simple steps to reconfigure our cities in a way that encourages people not to drive. In April, the city of Oakland, California, moved to open 74 miles of roadways for cyclists and pedestrians to exercise and get fresh air during the shelter-in-place orders. In places like Kansas City, Missouri, officials have limited traffic by turning parking spots into miniature parks where  restaurants can offer service. Some cities, such as Seattle, are already making road closures for biking and pedestrian use permanent. 

At the federal level, much can be done to help reduce pollution. The massive infrastructure bill adopted by the House of Representatives last week includes numerous reforms to promote low-emission transportation, including expanding electric vehicle infrastructure. An even bolder set of proposals came from the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which issued a report at the end of June including measures such as ensuring that all vehicles sold by 2035 are zero-emission, doubling federal funding for public transportation, and offering incentives for electric vehicle purchasing. 

By rethinking transportation policy we can ensure that once we have moved through the COVID-19 lockdown, we will continue to make progress against the public health threat of air pollution, which takes thousands of lives year in and year out. This prolonged moment of shelter-in-place has shown us that even the most polluted areas of our world can recover and enjoy clear skies. By working toward beating air pollution, we can make the clean skies and air we had during COVID-19 ours for good.

Photo credit: NASA