Magazine article USA TODAY

PANDEMIC PURIFICATION? "NASA Has Released Satellite Imagery of Reduced Nitrogen Dioxide-A Major Air Pollutant Linked to Respiratory Infections-In the Atmosphere after Stay-at-Home Measures Were Enacted. Worldwide, Carbon Dioxide Emissions, a Leading Contributor to Climate Change, Are Estimated to Fall Five Percent or More This Year."

Magazine article USA TODAY

PANDEMIC PURIFICATION? "NASA Has Released Satellite Imagery of Reduced Nitrogen Dioxide-A Major Air Pollutant Linked to Respiratory Infections-In the Atmosphere after Stay-at-Home Measures Were Enacted. Worldwide, Carbon Dioxide Emissions, a Leading Contributor to Climate Change, Are Estimated to Fall Five Percent or More This Year."

Article excerpt

CORONAVIRUS is changing how the world operates, most notably in nations that now are under some sort of social distancing or quarantine measure. Many industries not deemed essential have shut down or limited production, with suspended sales both stalling the economy and causing widespread unemployment.

The pause of daily, routine activities is having an effect on air quality as well. Worldwide, carbon dioxide emissions, a leading contributor to climate change, are estimated to fall five percent or more this year--a sharper decline than during the 2009 Great Recession when emissions fell by 1.4%.

In the most-extreme example, Carbon Brief, a climate science research website, estimated levels of carbon dioxide fell by 25% in Wuhan, China, after activity in the city of 11,000,000 people was suspended for more than 10 weeks.

India, a country with a serious pollution problem, took aggressive action by suspending all nonessential production and sale of goods and services for all 1300,000,000 people in the country on March 24. This drastic action reduced India's air pollution dramatically in a single week. The concentration of particulate matter 2.5, which is a measure of microscopic atmospheric debris that poses significant health risks, fell by 71%.

The New York metropolitan area, hit hardest by the coronavirus, also has experienced a steep drop in emissions. NASA has released satellite imagery of reduced nitrogen dioxide--a major air pollutant linked to respiratory infections--in the atmosphere after stay-at-home measures were enacted.

While it is too soon to draw conclusions about the coronavirus' total impact on air quality, we know it does not require a global pandemic to reduce harmful emissions. The Clean Air Act of 1970 is evidence that smart and effective policies can reduce pollution and improve air quality dramatically: between 1970-2017, several common pollutants collectively fell by 73%, while gross domestic product increased 324%, meaning it is possible to grow the economy in an environmentally conscientious manner.

There is concern that a reduction in emissions caused by the economic downturn is temporary and emissions will increase as the nation focuses on recovery. Emissions spiked by 5.9% the year after the 2009 recession, according to the Global Carbon Project, an international organization of climate scientists. Other research shows there has been a direct relationship between economic growth and carbon dioxide emissions, meaning we have seen an increase in carbon dioxide emissions during periods of economic growth and a decrease during economic slowdowns.

Immediate recovery, relief, and focus on medical care are paramount, but the lesson that pollutants and carbon emissions can be reduced dramatically through human action should carry into long-term policymaking. Emissions and pollutants are down because of extreme social distancing measures, which have had high social and economic costs, but it is far from the only policy that can deal a real and sustainable blow to pollution and global warming. Once the pandemic subsides and the economy is back up and running, policymakers can consider policies that keep emissions down.

Like the coronavirus response, climate policy requires Federal support and state cooperation because a state's progress can be offset by a lack of policy from a neighboring state. One way to achieve collective action is for the Federal government to develop a meaningful social cost of carbon--a fiscal measurement of the costs each ton of emitted carbon dioxide has on the environment and society.

Carbon dioxide is a heat-trapping gas that intensifies the effects of climate change, such as increases in the frequency and severity of floods and droughts. …

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