What the pandemic can teach us about ways to reduce air pollution


The COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t just a shock to the human immune system. It was also a shock to the Earth system, dramatically changing the air quality in cities around the globe.

As countries around the globe struggled to contain the disease, they imposed temporary shutdowns. Scientists are now sifting through data collected by satellite and on the ground to understand what this hiatus in human activities can tell us about the atmospheric cocktail that generates city pollution. Much of this preliminary data was shared at the American Geophysical Union annual meeting in December.

It was already known that peoples’ activities were curtailed enough to result in a dramatic drop in emissions of greenhouse gases in April, as well as a dip in the seismic noises produced by humans (SN: 5/19/20; SN: 7/23/20). That quiet period didn’t last, though, and carbon dioxide emissions began to climb back upward by the summer. April 2020 saw a drop of about 17 percent in global monthly CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, but by year’s end, annual CO2 emissions for the globe were only 7 percent lower than they were in 2019. That reduction was too brief, compared with the hundreds of years that the gas can linger in Earth’s atmosphere, to put a dent in the planet’s atmospheric CO2 level (SN: 8/7/20).

But in addition to briefly reducing emissions of climate-warming gases, this abrupt halt in many human activities — particularly commuter traffic — also created an unprecedented experiment for scientists to examine the complicated chemistry of atmospheric pollutants in cities. By altering the usual mix of pollutants hovering over cities, the shutdowns may help scientists better understand another longstanding misery for human health: poor air quality in many cities.

That’s not to say that the pandemic has a silver lining, says Jessica Gilman, a tropospheric chemist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colo. “Misery is no solution to our global environmental challenges.”

But there’s now a wealth of data from cities around the globe on how the pandemic altered regional or local concentrations of the precursors of ozone, a primary component of smog. Those precursors include nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds — both produced by traffic — as well as methane, produced by the oil and gas industry. With satellites, scientists are also able to assess how levels of these pollutants changed around the globe.

Building a global picture of altered city pollution is no easy task, though. Researchers are finding that the pandemic’s impact on levels of various pollutants was highly regional, affected by differences in wind and rain as well as by photochemical interactions with sunlight — the intensity of which also changes with the season.  

That stark variety of regional effects was evident in, for example, the different post-pandemic ozone levels in Denver and New York City. Nitrogen oxide gases produced by traffic are a powerful precursor to cities’ elevated ozone levels, which can damage the lungs and trigger respiratory ailments. The United States has made strides in reducing these gases over the last few decades — but there hasn’t been a corresponding drop in ozone levels, Dan Jaffe, an environmental chemist at the University of Washington Bothell, reported at the meeting on December 9.

The shutdowns gave researchers some insight into why, Jaffe says. From March 15 through July 23, New York City had a 21 percent decrease in nitrogen dioxide, one of several nitrogen oxide gases, in comparison with 2019 levels. Although the shutdowns were more stringent during the spring months, it turned out that summertime reductions in nitrogen dioxide were most strongly linked to the city’s change in ozone levels, the researchers found. “We see very strong reduction in summertime ozone this year,” Jaffe said at the meeting, citing unpublished data.

That’s because in the summer months, heat and sunlight react with the precursor gases in the atmosphere, like nitrogen dioxide, creating a toxic cocktail. This kind of insight can be a boon to policy makers in a non-pandemic year, suggesting that nitrogen oxide regulations should focus most strongly on the summer, Jaffe says. “It’s really good evidence that NOx reductions extending into July in 2020 had an important impact.”

In Denver, however, ozone didn’t drop so consistently — possibly because wildfires were beginning to rage across the U.S. West by the end of the summer (SN: 12/21/20). The fires produce nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and fine particles that can also help to increase ground-level ozone.

“There are different patterns in different cities,” Jaffe says. “There are a lot of factors to sort out, and a lot of work to be done.” Armed with a wealth of new data from 2020, scientists hope to be able to make some headway.

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