Shutdowns have led to cleaner air quality. Is it sustainable?

The World
A man in the middle of a smog-filled street

Residents of Nairobi can again see the mountains in the distance. People in Los Angeles are looking up and seeing stars at night. In a quieter, calmer Wuhan, China, you can hear the birds chirping again. 

Shutting down economies is giving us a glimpse of what the world could look like if less fuel is burned. One clear, immediate benefit? Less air pollution. 

Last year, the United Nations noted that "polluted air kills some 7 million people each year, causes long-term health problems, such as asthma, and reduces children’s cognitive development." Air pollution is also expensive: According to the World Bank, it costs societies more than $5 trillion annually. 

Related: Safe' levels of air pollution can actually be deadly

Stanford Unversity earth systems science professor Marshall Burke looked at China, where he estimates that a drop in deadly air pollution from coronavirus shutdowns may have saved thousands of lives. He cautioned that air quality improvements during the pandemic should not be seen as a cost-benefit calculation. Still, the current situation gives insight into the costs of polluting economies and how they might be changed to improve health outcomes, Burke told The World's Marco Werman. 

A combination picture shows birds flying over the waters of the Yamuna river near the Signature bridge on Nov. 1, 2019 and after air pollution level started to drop during a nationwide lockdown to slow the spreading of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19),

A combination picture shows birds flying over the waters of the Yamuna river near the Signature bridge on Nov. 1, 2019 and after air pollution level started to drop during a nationwide lockdown to slow the spreading of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), on Earth Day in New Delhi, India, April 22, 2020.


Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters

Marco Werman: When you compare air pollution in China before the pandemic to what it was like during the shutdowns, how dramatic of a difference have you seen?

Marshall Burke: So in the places most affected by the shutdown, by the coronavirus in China, we saw improvements in air quality of about 20-30%, which is quite large.

So this drop in air pollution — are we looking at something that could save lives? How are mortality and air pollution connected?

That's right. So now there's decades of research suggesting that improvements in air quality are really good for health. Leading estimates suggest that poor air quality results in millions of premature deaths around the world. And so improvements in air quality is going to reduce mortality and improve health outcomes. And that's exactly what we would expect in China with these recent air quality improvements.

Related: Prior exposure air pollution increases death risk COVID-19 

So let's be clear, no one is arguing — you're not arguing — that this pandemic is a good thing. But what are the lessons that we can learn from this temporary pause in normal economic activity? Are there parts of just the way we usually do things in "normal" times that maybe should be reexamined?

Yeah, that's right. A pandemic is a terrible way to improve air quality or improve environmental outcomes. This is absolutely not the way you want to go about that. That said, I think what a lot of people have noticed in recent weeks is the dramatic improvement in many environmental outcomes, air quality being the most obvious one. And perhaps it helps us understand how polluting our economies are in normal times, and helps us imagine sort of a cleaner future and what this would actually look like.

The Big Fix: What can COVID-19 teach us about the climate crisis? 

So as the months have gone by, the math has changed a little bit. When you started this project, the number of lives that you estimated would be saved through the drop in air pollution was larger than the number of deaths from coronavirus. But that's shifted, right? I mean, as the pandemic has spread, that's no longer the case.

Yeah. So the early calculation I did was in China specifically, where we saw really dramatic improvements in air quality. The calculation I did suggested maybe 50,000 lives would be saved just from the air quality improvements alone. Now, again, this is not a cost-benefit calculation of an epidemic. That is just trying to isolate that component of the mortality that's going to change because of the air quality changes. But we know the pandemic is causing all sorts of other havoc. It's directly affecting people who get the virus. It's indirectly harming the broader medical system, which gets congested, and people are unable to get treatment for non-COVID-related ailments. So this is not suggesting that the pandemic is good for health overall. It's just saying this air quality part of it definitely had some benefits.

Related: New EPA rule requires private health records for studies

So it has this pause in air pollution, if we can call it that, and the research that you're looking at — has it made you rethink any parts of how you live or work?

It certainly has. As an academic, the pandemic has really forced us to experiment with new ways of doing things. We teach our classes online. We interview job candidates online. Of course, others are doing this. This is not just academia, but I think some of these things work pretty well. There's no reason I need to fly to the East Coast to give a talk. I can actually give one on Zoom, and it works decently well. The pandemic, for better or worse, has taught us a lot about other things that we could be doing in a more environmentally friendly way.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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