1998 Los Angeles (left) is a stark contrast to Los Angeles in March 2020 (right)
Source: © Nick Ut/AP, Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today/Reuters

Air pollution kills far more than COVID-19. Will Our Response Be Proportionate?

Investment in clean energy jobs will save lives and reboot our economy.

By Peter Glenn and Ryan Kushner

As the COVID-19 outbreak begins to peak in the US and abroad, one ironic silver lining from the near global shutdown is that citizens all over the world are getting a glimpse at what a low-carbon future could look like.

In April, Los Angeles has its cleanest air since records were first kept in 1980. — Source: Mike Sington

From the US to India and China, the images of now blue skies are striking. For the first time in decades, residents of Los Angeles can see all the way to Long Beach. Monuments and mountain ranges are clear, and new distant details are visible for the first time. This is the Earth, unadulterated, and the air, unaltered.

New Delhi, India — Source: The Guardian

The haze that has blocked our skylines has increased gradually as our use of fossil-fueled transportation and dirty energy-fueled factory production has increased. However, as our movement and production has slowed in our response to the spread of COVID-19, the air has cleared dramatically quickly, and people are enjoying vistas never experienced.

Of course, this isn’t just about having a nice view — it’s about your health, and the heath of all people. The yellow smoke in the air that we’ve gotten so used to is what happens when you burn oil and coal by the ton, and set fine particles and chemicals loose. As you might expect, breathing this haze in every day, with virtually every breath, has a dramatically negative effect on human health — one that is bigger than COVID-19.

Source: European Space Agency

The World Health Organization estimates that 4.2 million people die each year from ambient air pollution. If you include water and other pollutants the number jumps to 12 million, according to the World Health Organization.

Just looking at 4.2 million annual air pollution deaths, that’s still 24x the number of global COVID-19 deaths thus far, which as of April 21th, is 171,810 deaths worldwide. That’s not to say the coronavirus pandemic isn’t a gravely serious health threat, but these numbers do highlight that we’ve been living with, and dying from, air pollution for much longer.

To twist the knife even further, COVID-19 and air pollution interact to the unfortunate detriment of those exposed to both. New research by the Harvard School of Public Health shows that people who have been exposed to higher levels of air pollution for decades are 15% more likely to die from COVID-19 infections. And who is the most exposed? Sadly, air pollution is much higher in low income communities, which partially explains why coronavirus mortality rates are so disproportionately high among African Americans in the US. This also happens on a country level, where more heavily fossil-fueled economies experience more premature deaths from air pollution.

Source: statista

From a recent Vox article: “The team found that an increase of one microgram of fine particulates per cubic meter is associated with a 15 percent increase in the Covid-19 death rate. That’s significant; as a comparison, the EPA says an acceptable level of annual exposure is an average of 12 micrograms per cubic meter.”

This all begs the question: should there be proportionality in our response to both health issues?

In this pandemic, we have justifiably rearranged our economy to save human lives. As we create policy and an economic stimulus to recover from COVID-19, let’s not let these lessons go to waste. We should invest in clean air and clean jobs, with a response that is proportional to the number of lives we can save. Here are a few obvious avenues:

Transportation:

Transportation is the leading cause of both air pollution and climate change in the US, making up 29% US carbon emissions. Investing in incentives to replace diesel trucks, which make up 20% of carbon emissions in states like California, with cleaner all-electric and hybrid vehicles like Tesla’s new Semi may yield the fastest returns on capital and clean air.

Half of transportation emissions come from passenger cars and trucks. Today’s low-end electric cars meet most Americans’ needs and save drivers more than $1,000 a year on fuel and maintenance when compared to gasoline-powered alternatives.

To start, let’s fund Joe Biden’s plan to install 500,000 new public charging stations and extend the $7,500 EV tax credit for American carmakers Tesla and GM. Ultimately, gas cars should be regulated out of existence like freon. Let’s join the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Ireland, the UK and cities like Paris, London, Los Angeles, and Seattle in banning the combustion engine by 2030.

Electricity Production:

Electricity production is the second biggest polluter in the US, with 28% of total emissions. Let’s invest in plant efficiencies as well as renewable energy. While oil companies are collapsing, renewables are set to grow to a record 21% of US electricity in 2020, up from 18% in 2019. Since 2015, the energy sector has created 10.7% of all new jobs in the US, far beating out fossil fuels.

Your role:

Beyond big policy and infrastructure investments, what can you do? Find more ways to bike and use public transportation, and reduce your non-essential air travel. If you have to commute, buy an electric car (and start saving money — the total cost of ownership, which includes gas and maintenance, makes EVs a better choice today).

If you own a home, invest in electrifying and decarbonizing your home by installing solar, smart thermostats, heat pumps, battery storage, and efficient major appliances. Installing these upgrades will save you thousands of dollars through rebates and on energy costs over time. It will also safeguard your inside air (burning natural gas in your home is also a significant source of pollutants for you and your family).

Containing the COVID-19 health crisis must be our first priority. However, as we take a step back and consider a stimulus to reboot our economy and chart a path forward, our focus should be on investing in the full, fast and complete transition to a 100% clean economy. Doing so will reduce air pollution deaths and create jobs in one of the already fastest growing sectors for job creation. These are achievable, economy-growing, and life-saving opportunities.

New Delhi, India — Source: The Guardian

Look again at the split screen shot from India. We can, for the first time, see the difference between the old economy and the new in dramatic fashion — and it turns out to be a matter of life and death. Let’s plan for this great transition with appropriate proportionality, and reap the benefits of cleaner air and more jobs.

About Us

Peter Glenn is a clean tech entrepreneur and Co-Founder of EV Life.

Ryan Kushner is The Accelerator Guy and supports clean energy enterprises all over the world through his work at New Energy Nexus and with the Rocky Mountain Institute.

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Peter Glenn

Peter Glenn

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I’m a toddler dad who’s accelerating the transition to zero emissions energy at http://evlife.co