How Coronavirus Quarantines Lead To A Drop In Air Pollution

As coronavirus quickly spreads around the world, the virus is forcing people to stay put. People aren’t driving or flying, leading to a massive reduction in air pollution, most notably in China, but also in Italy, the U.S. and other hard-hit areas that have implemented directives to stay home.

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How Coronavirus Quarantines Lead To A Drop In Air Pollution

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Transcript

As coronavirus quickly spreads around the
world, it's forcing people tostay 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 thenew norm, people aren't
driving or flying.Given this Stanford Earth Systems
Professor Marshall Burke raised aninteresting question.Ignoring for a moment all the
terrible disruption happening from the virusitself, what might be the air pollution
benefits, if you will, of thiseconomic slowdown? Massive,
it turns out.The World Health Organization estimates
that outdoor air pollution kills4.2 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 inair quality, especially in hard-hit cities
like Wuhan, as well as innorthern Italy and a number of
metropolitan areas throughout the U.S.By Burke's most conservative estimate, this
change has saved 50,000 livesin China. To be
clear, nobody is sayingthat the outbreak is good.It's undeniably quite bad for
our physical, mental and financialwell-being. It's also very likely bad
for climate change overall, aspriorities and funding are now shifting
towards public health, as theyshould. But it's also undeniable that
this reduction in carbon emissionshas had a huge impact.Our estimates are that just two months
of improved air quality reduced thenumber of lives lost by 50,000.T hese are deaths that would have
happened otherwise that did not or atleast 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 dueto the economic disruption, due to
congestion in the healthcare system,people with non-COVID-19 diseases not being able
to get the care that theywould need otherwise. I think we should
not think of this as acost-benefit calculation
around epidemics.The cost of this epidemic is going to
be massive – the economic costs, thehealth costs, the social costs.But scientists like Burke hope that by
talking about the lives saved fromcleaner air, they can raise awareness
about just how dangerous moresubtle, insidious threats like
air pollution can be.And then once the virus is
contained, maybe some positive mindsets andhabits 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 wedo 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 fromcardiovascular or
respiratory distress.You're exposed to air pollution over
years and decades, whereas with thecoronavirus, 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 andcopper extraction was poisoning
our ancestor's air.The very first air quality legislation
was enacted by King Edward ofEngland 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 ameasurement of particulate matter called
PM2.5, which is the mostdangerous type of pollutant.The 2.5 refers to the particulate
size, 2.5 microns, or about onethirtieth the width of a human hair.The baseline levels of PM2.5 in many
Chinese cities are above one hundredand 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 onaverage. 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 levelsexceeded 150. After the Chinese economy
ground to a halt, PM2.5levels rapidly decreased by
about 20 percent.Satellite images from NASA reveal proof
of this significant drop in Chinaas 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 seeingmajor shifts, with researchers at
Columbia University calculating thatcarbon monoxide emissions in New York City
are down by over 50 percent.One unexpected effect of this rapid
shutdown has been that Venice'stypically murky canals are running clear for
the first time in years, asboats are no longer kicking
up sediment from the ground.This doesn't necessarily indicate that the
water quality has improved, butit's still served as a powerful reminder
to many of what our cities wouldlook 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, anunknown number of lives
are also being spared.In the case of China, Burke was able
to arrive at his estimate for livessaved by extrapolating on data gathered
during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.During this time, the Chinese government
undertook a massive effort toclean up the air, shutting down
factories and power plants and keepingcars off the roads.And this led to about a 25
percent improvement in air quality in Beijingover about a two month period.So it's almost the exact same case in
terms of the air quality changes aswe have seen in China
over the last few months.Under conservative estimates, I calculate
that this two month improvementin air quality saved
about 50,000 lives.Clearly though, nobody hoped that this
was the way emissions reductionswould come about. It's exactly the wrong
way how we should go aboutdecreasing emissions.It's not about going
back into our caves.Really what ought to happen for
climate change is thinking hard aboutdeploying new technologies, deploying
existing technologies at scale,figuring out how to decrease
emissions without what is currentlyhappening. Right?Without crashing economies, millions of people
out of work, millions oflives destroyed.As soon as the pandemic and the
emergency passes, i t's likely thatindustrial production will ramp right back
up again, possibly to muchhigher 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 tolive. For example, this period
of remote working and videoconferencingcould urge people to rethink
their need to travel frequently.Even eliminating a few business trips
and doing them remotely eliminates ahuge proportion of my
own personal carbon footprint.And I think the experience, my experience
with the technology in the lastfew 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 theadoption and enforcement of stricter
emission standards for industrialplants such as steel mills, a
major contributor of pollutants in China.It really highlights the overall health
burden of our everyday actions, oursort of business as usual economies.So I agree that it would be
great if we approach those problems withsomething like the same focus that
we're now approaching the epidemic.While emissions are down, the
coronavirus outbreak will undoubtedly hurtthe greater fight against climate change
in a number of other ways.Some of the places that are being
impacted most severely, for example inChina, manufacture solar panels.They're a large part of why solar
panels are now in many places cheaperthan coal and how we can actually
say that a clean energy transition ispossible. China is also a major
manufacturer of wind turbines and lithiumion batteries, which power electric
vehicles and provide energy storage.Coronavirus-related supply chain disruptions
could massively impact theprice and availability of green tech.And as the global economy enters
a downturn, funding for clean energyinitiatives may dry up.A lot of effort and funding that
could be going to climate adaptation andresilience and mitigation could be diverted
to dealing with this pandemicbecause it is so urgent and
we do need to address it.While scientists would like to address all
of our problems at once, acrisis 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 onthe 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 anepidemic, a nd that's absolutely not
what they were meant to be.But hopefully once the epidemic subsides, it
would also be useful to thinkwhat we learned more broadly about
what changes in our economic behaviorwe can learn from this. And as
governments scramble for ways to stimulatethe flagging global economy, advocates like Boeve
hope they do so with aneye towards
environmental responsibility.We cannot be bailing out the oil,
gas and coal industries and the financialsectors that prop them up.If we do that, we are guaranteeing
that we're going to see more disasterslike this, because these industries are
creating a product that causesclimate 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 moreimportant right now is taking the lessons,
taking the ideas that lots ofus in lots of different fields have
generated over the years and applyingit to COVID-19.

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