The World Health Organization estimates that outdoor air pollution kills 4.2 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 in air quality, especially in hard-hit citieslike Wuhan, as well as in northern Italy and a number of metro politan areas throughout the U.S. By Burke’s most conservative estimate, this change has saved 50,000 lives in China. To be clear, nobody is saying that the outbreak is good. It’s undeniably quite bad fo rour physical, mental and financial well-being. It’s also very likely bad for climate change overall, as priorities and funding are now shifting towards public health, as they should. But it’s also undeniable that this reduction in carbon emissions has had a huge impact.
Our estimates are that just two months of improved air quality reduced the number of lives lost by 50,000. These are deaths that would have happened otherwise that did not or at least happened much later han they would have. As of late March, there 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 due to the economic disruption, due to congestion in the healthcare system, people with non-COVID-19 diseases not being able to get the care that they would need otherwise. I think we should not think of this as a cost-benefit calculation around epidemics. The cost of this epidemic is going tobe massive – the economic costs, the health costs, the social costs. But scientists like Burke hope that by talking about the lives saved from cleaner air, they can raise awareness about just how dangerous more subtle, insidious threats like air pollution can be. And then once the virus is contained, maybe some positive mindsets and habits will arise from the disruption. So I hope people are recognizing that there are different ways to live. We might not need as much has we thought we needed.
The take is absolutely not that there is a silver lining to epidemics. Epidemics are terrible, but maybe they help us also learn about things we do 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 from cardiovascular orrespiratory distress. You’re exposed to air pollution over years and decades, whereas with the coronavirus, the impactsare 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 and copper extraction was poisoningour ancestor’s air. The very first air quality legislation was enacted by King Edward of England 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 a measurement of particulate matter called PM2.5, which is the most dangerous type of pollutant. The 2.5 refers to the particulate size, 2.5 microns, or about one thirtieth the width of a human hair. The baseline levels of PM2.5 in many Chinese cities are above one hundred and 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 level as often being 10 times worse on average. Some Italian cities like Milan face similar concerns. In the wintertime, PM2.5 levelsin Milan regularly exceed 100. And this January, before the lockdowns,there were 14 days where levels exceeded 150. After the Chinese economy ground to a halt, PM2.5 levels rapidly decreased by about 20 percent. Satellite images from NASA reveal proof of this significant drop in China as well as in Italy, now considered the center of the global crisis. Major U.S. cities like Los Angeles, Seattleand New York are also seeing major shifts, with researchers at Columbia University calculating that carbon monoxide emissions in New York Cityare down by over 50 percent. One unexpected effect of this rapid shutd own has been that Venice’s typically murky canals are running clear for the first time in years, as boats are no longer kicking up sediment from the ground. This doesn’t necessarily indicate that the water quality has improved, but it’s still served as a powerful reminder to many of what our cities would look 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, an unknown number of lives are also being spared. In the case of China, Burke was able to arrive at his estimate for lives saved by extrapolating on data gathered during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. During this time, the Chinese government undertook a massive effort to clean up the air, shutting down factories and power plants and keeping cars off the roads. And this led to about a 25 percent improvement in air quality in Beijing over about a two month period. So it’s almost the exact same case interms of the air quality changes as we have seen in Chinaover the last few months. Under conservative estimates, I calculatethat this two month improvement in air quality savedabout 50,000 lives.
Clearly though, nobody hoped that this was the way emissions reductions would come about. It’s exactly the wron way how we should go about decreasing emissions. It’s not about going back into our caves. Really what ought to happen for climate change is thinking hard about deploying new technologies, deploying existing technologies at scale, figuring out how to decreaseemissions without what is currently happening. Right? Without crashing economies, millions of people out of work, millions of lives destroyed. As soon as the pandemic and the emergency passes, i t’s likely that industrial production will ramp right backup again, possibly to much higher levels than it was be foreto make up for the gap. But what I do hope is that we’ll see that there is a different way to live. For example, this period of remote working and videoconferencing could urge people to rethinktheir need to travel frequently. Even eliminating a few business trips and doing them remotely eliminates a huge proportion of myown personal carbon footprint. And I think the experience, my experiencewith the technology in the last few 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 the adoption and enforcement of stricteremission standards for industrial plants such as steel mills, a major contributor of pollutants in China. It really highlights the overall healthburden of our everyday actions, our sort of business as usual economies. So I agree that it would begreat if we approach those problems with something like the same focus that we’re now approaching the epidemic.
We cannot be bailing out the oil,gas and coal industries and the financial sectors that prop them up. If we do that, we are guaranteeing that we’re going to see more disasters like this, because these industries are creating a product that causes climate change. First though, weneed 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 theday, what I think is much, much more important right now is taking the lessons,taking the ideas that lots of us in lots of different fields havegenerated over the years and applying it to COVID-19.