Skip to main content

The global economy depends on clean air

This 50th Earth Day, we observed the state of our planet from a new vantage point. As people spent the day at home, providing essential services or on the frontlines of the pandemic, Earth Day 2020 was profoundly different. 

COVID-19 has made the essential visible to all of us — it has exposed the invisible systems we depend on. Public health has been uncovered as the essential foundation of functioning economies. The virus has revealed how each breath connects us to each other and makes us interdependent with planetary functions. We’ve been reminded of the look and smell of clean air, and our evolutionary capacity to cooperate and mobilize in service of collective good. 

As millions confront the most devastating impacts of COVID-19, Earth Day challenges us to commit to a new path forward — one that protects the essential. The challenges we face inspire a new call to action, to solve multiple problems at once: the economic crisis; the health crisis; and the climate crisis. 

We have come face-to-face with the painful truth: that we destroy our own health through the same means by which we destroy our environment. Pollution isn’t just changing the climate, it’s also making us more vulnerable to infection, illness and premature death — all of which undermine our economy’s basic ability to function. 

Research is showing that, in addition to the known negative effects on pulmonary health, long-term exposure to even slightly elevated levels of particulate matter make people more likely to die from COVID-19. Emerging research is investigating the potential for air pollution to act as a physical carrier for the coronavirus. At the same time, while social distancing has flattened the infection curve, it also has decreased emissions from traffic and other sources, reducing air pollution around the world. 

Pollution isn’t just changing the climate, it’s also making us more vulnerable to infection, illness and premature death — all of which undermine our economy’s basic ability to function.
First in China, then in Europe and the United States and now around the world, people are viscerally experiencing the connection between our collective actions and the air we breathe. This unfolding crisis gives us a never-before-seen glimpse into what happens when we take rapid action to reduce emissions worldwide.

Air pollution causes widespread and inequitable damage

The reprieve, however, from decades of widespread exposure is likely brief. According to the American Lung Association’s (ALA) State of the Air report released last week, air pollution worsened in the two years before the pandemic, and half of the U.S. population breathed unhealthy air. Globally, according to the World Health Organization, that figure is a staggering 92 percent, with the combination of indoor and outdoor air pollution causing about 7 million people to die prematurely each year.

The effects of air pollution permeate every organ in the human body at every stage of life. The same pollutants that harm our health are harming our planet at global proportions. COVID-19 has shown us that public health and resilience are the foundation of our economy, a truth we’ve ignored for far too long. And while COVID-19 has affected us suddenly and abruptly, air pollution is akin to a slow-moving pandemic. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (PDF) (OECD), air pollution has cost trillions per year due to healthcare costs and lost productivity.  

However, pollution exposure is not uniform. Aclima’s research has shown that air pollutant levels can be five to eight times worse from one end of a city block to another, year after year.  

These localized variances in pollution exposure have translated to increased risk for serious complications from COVID-19 in the boroughs of New York City. But disproportionate impacts are nothing new. They follow the lines and long-worn grooves of structural inequities. In the U.S., we’ve seen a higher burden of air pollution exposure in communities of color for generations — resulting in higher rates of asthma, cancer, heart disease and respiratory illness.

The sudden reduction in anthropogenic (or human-made) emissions due to physical distancing around the world creates an unprecedented global experiment that helps us better understand how pollution levels are affected by large-scale behavioral change. At Aclima, our analysis is also showing remarkable differences in relative changes in air pollution based on geography due to shelter-in-place. 

For example, California, which began sheltering-in-place statewide March 20, saw drops in air pollutants across the board, statewide. But the changes in pollutant levels weren’t uniform everywhere.

In some inland counties, we saw air pollutant levels fall farther and faster than in counties on the coast. Those inland counties historically have had some of the highest levels of persistent pollution in the state. Evidence is mounting that reducing fossil fuel emissions statewide has even greater impacts on improving air quality in places where it historically has been disproportionately higher.  

California emissions levels March to early April

Supporting policies to serve our most vulnerable

Air pollution levels depend on many factors, including emissions source, geography and meteorological conditions. Beyond measuring overall reductions, Aclima’s granular and multi-pollutant measurements can zero in on the impacts of mobile sources such as trucks, passenger vehicles, ships and airplanes as compared to stationary sources such as factories, power plants and waste facilities. 

These new data can inform and help prioritize policy changes and emission reductions efforts across government, businesses and communities. They make the case for accelerating and scaling existing efforts underway, including investing in vehicle and home electrification, expanding public transit, phasing out diesel, green and equitable urban planning, and renewable energy production. 

In addition to advancing existing efforts, new approaches could be employed such as incentivizing remote work, altering work and school schedules to reduce urban traffic bottlenecks, and prioritizing resources in the communities where the data show the most significant impacts. The data also can prove out the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of existing and new efforts based on local conditions. 

As we breathe cleaner air than we have in decades in our cities, we must ensure we rise out of this crisis without slipping backward to protect from new threats such as COVID-19 and to increase the resilience of our communities against future shocks. 

As public officials and healthcare providers look for ways to protect public health while loosening social distancing restrictions, they must take long-term air pollution exposure into account. 

By investing in emissions reductions, large-scale electrification and decarbonization, we can get people back to work on infrastructure that ensures clean air and protects human health.
People with the greatest long-term pollutant exposure are both the most vulnerable and also the most likely to benefit from interventions and resources. We must roll back the inequities that have existed for generations while preventing future harm. Allowing emissions to return to pre-pandemic levels and resume their upward trajectory would run counter to everything needed to fight the coronavirus.

It’s easy to forget that just a few months ago, for the first time in its 15-year history, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report indicated that all five top risks by likelihood in 2020 are climate-related. Although the report didn’t predict COVID-19, it did state that "health systems worldwide are still under-prepared for significant outbreaks of other emerging infectious diseases."

Earlier this year, NASA, NOAA and the UK Met Office confirmed that the decade ending in 2019 was the warmest on record. Wall Street acknowledged the threat of climate change to the global economy, with BlackRock founder Larry Fink writing in his annual letter that "climate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects."

Now the pandemic has made clear that public health is a defining factor in our economy. This means the path forward is integrated, and the opportunity is at hand for systems change — cleaning the air, creating millions of new jobs and ensuring that we bring equity to the vulnerable. This is the foundation for resilience over the long term. We can be greener, cleaner and more equitable.

Clean air is essential to economic, human and planetary health

The threat that climate change represents is currently overshadowed by the shockwaves that the COVID-19 pandemic is sending through countries around the world. But climate change and respiratory illness share a common link: air pollution. Our environment, our economy and our health are all inextricably intertwined. 

While new therapeutics and vaccines are not yet available to stop the pandemic, we have many tools to reduce emissions already in hand. By investing in emissions reductions, large-scale electrification and decarbonization, we can get people back to work on infrastructure that ensures clean air and protects human health. We must prioritize the frontline communities that are hit the hardest, and in the process build an economy that is resilient and strong, for the long term. 

With this momentous 50th Earth Day behind us, COVID-19 has illuminated the fundamental truth that clean air is essential to a healthy, equitable and prosperous future. To repair our economy and ensure its resilience, we can — and we must — solve for public and planetary health at the same time.

More on this topic