As people across the globe stay home to stop the spread of the new coronavirus, the air has cleaned up, albeit temporarily. Smog stopped choking New Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world, and India’s getting views of sights not visible in decades. Nitrogen dioxide pollution in the northeastern United States is down 30%. Rome air pollution levels from mid-March to mid-April were down 49% from a year ago. Stars seem more visible at night.
People are also noticing animals in places and at times they don’t usually. Coyotes have meandered along downtown Chicago’s Michigan Avenue and near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. A puma roamed the streets of Santiago, Chile. Goats took over a town in Wales. In India, already daring wildlife has become bolder with hungry monkeys entering homes and opening refrigerators to look for food.
When people stay home, Earth becomes cleaner and wilder.
“It is giving us this quite extraordinary insight into just how much of a mess we humans are making of our beautiful planet,” says conservation scientist Stuart Pimm of Duke University. “This is giving us an opportunity to magically see how much better it can be.”
Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, assembled scientists to assess the ecological changes happening with so much of humanity housebound. Scientists, stuck at home like the rest of us, say they are eager to explore unexpected changes in weeds, insects, weather patterns, noise and light pollution. Italy’s government is working on an ocean expedition to explore sea changes from the lack of people.
“In many ways we kind of whacked the Earth system with a sledgehammer and now we see what Earth’s response is,” Field says.
Researchers are tracking dramatic drops in traditional air pollutants, such as nitrogen dioxide, smog and tiny particles. These types of pollution kill up to 7 million people a year worldwide, according to Health Effects Institute president Dan Greenbaum.
The air from Boston to Washington is its cleanest since a NASA satellite started measuring nitrogen dioxide,in 2005, says NASA atmospheric scientist Barry Lefer. Largely caused by burning of fossil fuels, this pollution is short-lived, so the air gets cleaner quickly.
Compared to the previous five years, March air pollution is down 46% in Paris, 35% in Bengaluru, India, 38% in Sydney, 29% in Los Angeles, 26% in Rio de Janeiro and 9% in Durban, South Africa, NASA measurements show.
“We’re getting a glimpse of what might happen if we start switching to non-polluting cars,” Lefer says.
Cleaner air has been most noticeable in India and China. On April 3, residents of Jalandhar, a city in north India’s Punjab, woke up to a view not seen for decades: snow-capped Himalayan peaks more than 100 miles away.
Cleaner air means stronger lungs for asthmatics, especially children, says Dr. Mary Prunicki, director of air pollution and health research at the Stanford University School of Medicine. And she notes early studies also link coronavirus severity to people with bad lungs and those in more polluted areas, though it’s too early to tell which factor is stronger.
The greenhouse gases that trap heat and cause climate change stay in the atmosphere for 100 years or more, so the pandemic shutdown is unlikely to affect global warming, says Breakthrough Institute climate scientist Zeke Hausfather. Carbon dioxide levels are still rising, but not as fast as last year.
Aerosol pollution, which doesn’t stay airborne long, is also dropping. But aerosols cool the planet so NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt is investigating whether their falling levels may be warming local temperatures for now.
Stanford’s Field says he’s most intrigued by increased urban sightings of coyotes, pumas and other wildlife that are becoming video social media staples. Boar-like javelinas congregated outside of a Arizona shopping center. Even New York City birds seem hungrier and bolder.
In Adelaide, Australia, police shared a video of a kangaroo hopping around a mostly empty downtown, and a pack of jackals occupied an urban park in Tel Aviv, Israel.
We’re not being invaded. The wildlife has always been there, but many animals are shy, Duke’s Pimm says. They come out when humans stay home.
For sea turtles across the globe, humans have made it difficult to nest on sandy beaches. The turtles need to be undisturbed and emerging hatchlings get confused by beachfront lights, says David Godfrey, executive director of the Sea Turtle Conservancy.
But with lights and people away, this year’s sea turtle nesting so far seems much better from India to Costa Rica to Florida, Godfrey says.
“There’s some silver lining for wildlife in what otherwise is a fairly catastrophic time for humans,” he says.
Associated Press writer Aniruddha Ghosal in New Delhi contributed to this report.
As the coronavirus cripples world economies, greenhouse gas emissions are plummeting: This year, they could drop by as much as 5.5 percent—the largest decrease ever recorded. On Monday, the price of oil went negative, meaning storing oil now costs more than the oil itself. Since we’re burning less gas and fuel, air pollution has dropped 30 percent in northeastern cities, and Los Angeles’ notorious smoggy skyline has cleared.
You might be thinking all this is great news for the environment. It’s a nice idea—but the real story is more complicated. “You don’t want companies collapsing like this,” says Andrew Logan, oil and gas director of Ceres, a think tank focused on sustainable investment. “Even the most ardent climate advocate shouldn’t wish for a chaotic transition in this sector. A chaotic transition brings all sort of pain to workers and also the environment.”
It helps to think of COVID-19 as a test run—a very painful one—of what an industry in decline will look like. “We’re seeing, as is case the now, what the cliff looks like if everyone shuts down at the same time,” Logan says.
With a glut of supply, North America producers Exxon, Shell, Devon Energy, and Cenovus Energy have already collectively announced spending cuts this year totaling $50 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal. In North Dakota, Trump donor Harold Hamm’s Continental Resources drilling company has cut output by 30 percent the next two months. In Canada, the famously destructive tar sands are too expensive to mine and refine on oil prices this cheap. Even the Southwest’s Permian Basin, the most productive region for oil and gas in the United States, is expected to see dramatic closures.
Environmentalists are worried about what comes next, because of the many unintended consequences of market chaos. For starters, when gas prices tank, Americans will likely start buying more cars and taking more road trips, driving up demand all over again.
Other environmental problems aren’t quite so obvious. Lorne Stockman, a senior research analyst with the climate advocacy group Oil Change International, worries that the coming bankruptcies this year “are an environmental nightmare in the making,” with “wells left to rot as bankruptcy proceedings are going through.”
As the industry contracts, some drilling operations will simply leave their wells, and many don’t have the funding set aside to take proper precautions to make sure greenhouse gases and other pollutants don’t leak out. Environmental advocates are especially worried about leaks of methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas.
Abandoned wells are already a big problem. Even in relatively good times, oil and gas wells still dry up. When they do, they might be sold to smaller, sometimes less scrupulous operators to tap what’s left in the well. Then those operators eventually abandon the well or go bankrupt. They can’t afford to clean up the site, which involves plugging the well with cement to avoid leaks into groundwater.
We don’t know for sure how many of these wells exist around the country, though the EPA estimates there are more than 1.5 million of them that have accumulated over a century. Wyoming has had thousands it’s in the process of plugging, and Pennsylvania has 8,000. Taxpayers will eventually pay for both cleanup and environmental damages.
Drilling operations that don’t shutter will have to find ways to cut costs. In boom times, methane is valuable to drillers because it can be captured and reused for fuel. But when oil and natural gas prices have crashed in the past, drillers have sought to get rid of excess methane in the cheapest way possible—by burning it (a process known as “flaring”) or simply letting it leak into the atmosphere (called “venting”). Both processes can contribute to climate change and contaminate surrounding communities. Flaring and venting worry many environmental advocates. The International Energy Agency notes that “low natural gas prices may lead to increases in flaring or venting, and regulatory oversight of oil and gas operations could be scaled back.”
Methane emissions hit a 20-year high last year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Although scientists don’t fully understand why, they believe that fracking operations may dramatically underestimate the methane they release. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, operations typically lose 15 times the rate that producers report because of malfunctions and intentional venting. The COVID-19 crisis could lead to more leaks, because companies won’t have any incentive to capture methane to use for fuel.
Amid the turbulence in the oil sector, the Trump administration has continued to roll back environmental regulations, and it has already undone Obama-era rules targeting methane emissions from oil and gas operations.
Nathalie Eddy, a field advocate for the environmental watchdog Earthworks, is worried that environmental contamination will be made worse as the administration weakens rules. “When the market falls like this one of the first things that will go is the limited capacity for inspection,” she says. The EPA, Department of the Interior, and Department of Transportation have already announced they will suspend some routine inspections and monitoring, including pipeline reporting and field inspections, and waive civil penalties if violators say COVID-19 was a factor.
Climate advocates have urged the EPA and Department of the Interior to require companies to monitor methane leaks and set aside money for their cleanup. To help the sector recoup the lost revenue, they propose a job stimulus program aimed at reclaiming these sites for the double-duty benefit of a clean environment and keeping workers employed.
But so far, those pleas are going unanswered. The Trump administration has floated several schemes for helping the oil sector: During the first round of stimulus, congressional Democrats managed to shoot down the oil industry’s bailout request. Now, the administration is considering paying producers to leave crude in the ground until the global glut shrinks. Meanwhile, the major banks want some collateral for the $200 billion they are owed from oil companies: According to Reuters, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and Citigroup could even seize the industry’s assets, which could pose an enormous conflict of interest for a financial sector that just months ago was signaling a move away from the oil sector.
So far, it looks like the short-term emissions drop won’t result in any lasting policy improvements, Stockman says. “We have seen the wrong kind of stimulus that isn’t aimed at changing our relationship to fossil fuels.”
When oil industry supports legislators, air quality suffers
By By Kathryn Phillips, April 22, 2019
California journalists have reported over the last two election cycles on the effort by the Legislature’s “moderate caucus,” composed of conservative Democratic state legislators, to increase the caucus’ influence
During normal times—say, when the planet’s very future hasn’t depended on dramatically cutting combustion fueled by oil and methane gas—such facts would be just interesting data points for analyzing the Legislature’s political dynamics.
Now, though, the caucus members’ devotion to maintaining California’s oil dependence is having health-threatening consequences.
This devotion is especially playing out in the Assembly Transportation Committee. The committee is chaired by Jim Frazier, a Democrat from Discovery Bay, a leader of the moderate caucus.
California’s notorious air and climate pollution is driven by transportation. The smog and toxic particles that spark maladies ranging from low birthweight to asthma and heart disease are tightly linked to tailpipe emissions.
Reams of data, scientific papers and regulatory agency reports point to the need to transition California’s cars and trucks to zero-emission vehicles if the state is to ever have clean air or avoid the worst effects of climate change.
So one would expect to see growing devotion by the Democratic-led California Legislature to do more to help Californians access electric cars and cut pollution from delivery trucks.
Instead, the California Assembly is the graveyard for legislation designed to help advance zero-emission vehicles.
Assembly Transportation Committee Chairman Frazier has a commanding, no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners style of governing. He has demonstrated that style by stopping bills to advance clean transportation by refusing to schedule them for a hearing in his committee.
One of the most recent victims is Assembly Bill 40, which would require the regulatory agency responsible for tailpipe emissions regulations, the California Air Resources Board, to produce and deliver to the legislature a strategy for fully transitioning brand new cars sold in California to zero-emission by 2040.
That is, the bill by San Francisco Democratic Assemblyman Phil Ting would have asked for a study to be done and sent to the Legislature. It did nothing more. Yet it’s a bill the oil and gas industry and the California Chamber of Commerce strongly oppose. The bill isn’t being scheduled for a hearing.
There are a few bills in the Senate that advance clean transportation that may pass in that house. But they are sure to face the buzzsaw in the Assembly once they reach Frazier’s committee.
How can a single legislator stop progress in advancing technology and cutting pollution?
He can do this by not acting alone. The Assembly Transportation Committee includes at least four other moderate caucus members who won’t buck the chairman, and whose votes, when counted with the handful of Republicans on the committee, can stop any bill.
In essence, the committee is stacked against zero-emission technology.
Frazier isn’t the only pro-oil Democrat sitting in a leadership role this year. Rudy Salas, Jr., a Democrat from Bakersfield, is chairman of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee. His first action was to try to get an expansive and expensive audit of the air resources board’s work on transportation.
It wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to see that Salas’s audit request, which failed to garner the votes needed, echoed the complaints commonly heard from the oil and gas industry about the air resources board’s transportation policies.
Who pays campaign costs has consequences. In the California Legislature, the consequences are that we all live with more health-threatening transportation pollution with no end in sight.
Kathryn Phillips is director of Sierra Club California, the legislative and regulatory advocacy arm of the Sierra Club’s 13 local chapters. She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.
More than 4 in 10 Americans Live with Unhealthy Air; Eight Cities Suffered Most Polluted Air Ever Recorded
American Lung Association’s 20th annual ‘State of the Air’ report sounds the alarm on worsened air quality driven by climate change, placing health and lives at risk
(April 24, 2019) – CHICAGO The American Lung Association’s 2019 “State of the Air” report finds that an increasing number of Americans—more than 4 in 10—lived with unhealthy air quality, placing their health and lives at risk. The 20th annual air quality “report card” found that 141.1 million people lived in counties with unhealthful levels of either ozone or particle pollution, an increase of more than 7.2 million Americans since the last annual report. Eight cities recorded their highest number of days with unhealthy spikes in particle pollution since the nation began monitoring this pollutant 20 years ago. And the nation recorded more days with air quality considered hazardous, when air quality reached “emergency conditions”—Maroon on the air quality index—than ever before.
“The 20th annual ‘State of the Air’ report shows clear evidence of a disturbing trend in our air quality after years of making progress: In many areas of the United States, the air quality is worsening, at least in part because of wildfires and weather patterns fueled by climate change,” said American Lung Association President and CEO Harold Wimmer. “This increase in unhealthy air is eye-opening, and points to the reality that the nation must do more to protect the public from serious, even life-threatening harm. There is no clearer sign that we are facing new challenges than air pollution levels that have broken records tracked for the past twenty years, and the fact that we had more days than ever before when monitored air quality reached hazardous levels for anyone to breathe.”
The 2019 “State of the Air” report analyzed the three years with the most recent quality-assured data collected by states, cities, counties, tribes and federal agencies: 2015-2017. Notably, those three years were the hottest recorded in global history. When it comes to air quality, changing climate patterns fuel wildfires and lead to worsened ozone pollution. This degraded air quality threatens the health of Americans, especially those more vulnerable such as children, older adults and those living with a lung disease.
Each year, “State of the Air” reports on the two most widespread outdoor air pollutants, ozone pollution and particle pollution. Each is dangerous to public health and each can be lethal. The 2019 “State of the Air” report found that more than 20 million people lived in counties that had unhealthy levels of air quality in all categories.
Particle Pollution Unhealthy particles in the air result from many sources, including wildfires, wood-burning devices, coal-fired power plants and diesel engines. Particle pollution can be deadly. Technically known as PM2.5, these microscopic particles lodge deep in the lungs and can enter the bloodstream, triggering asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes, and can cause lung cancer.
The report has two grades for particle pollution: One for “short-term” particle pollution, or daily spikes in the pollutant, and one for the annual average or “year-round” level that represents the concentration of particles day-in and day-out in each location.
Short-Term Particle Pollution
More cities experienced days when there were spikes in particle pollution, with eight cities of the 25 most-polluted reaching their highest number of such days in the report’s 20-year history: Fairbanks, Alaska; Salinas, CA; Santa Maria-Santa Barbara, CA; Missoula, Montana; Bismarck, ND; Bend-Pineville, OR; Spokane-Spokane Valley-Coeur d’Alene, WA-ID; and Yakima, Washington. Wildfires in 2017, especially in Montana, Washington and California, and woodsmoke from heating homes contributed to many of these dangerous spikes. Bakersfield, CA, remained the #1 most polluted city for short-term particle levels, as it has for eight of the past 10 reports. Overall, daily spikes in particle pollution are getting more frequent, and, in many cases, more severe, with four days reaching hazardous, Maroon alert levels in 2017, the highest number ever. Nationwide, more than 49.6 million people suffered those episodes of unhealthy spikes in particle pollution in the 76 counties where they lived.
Top 10 U.S. Cities Most Polluted by Short-Term Particle Pollution (24-hour PM2.5):
San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, California
Los Angeles-Long Beach, California
Salt Lake City-Provo-Orem, Utah
Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, Pennsylvania-Ohio-West Virginia
Year-Round Particle Pollution
More than 20.5 million people lived in counties with unhealthy levels of year-round particle pollution, which is more than in the last two annual “State of the Air” reports. Steps to clean up emissions that cause particle pollution helped reduce some averages. Meanwhile, major sources like agriculture, power plants and industrial sources still emit too much particulate matter, and wildfires in the western U.S. contributed to higher levels of particle pollution in several cities. Fresno-Madera-Hanford, CA, topped the list as most polluted by year-round particle levels in this year’s report, tying its previous record for the highest level ever reached.
Top 10 U.S. Cities Most Polluted by Year-Round Particle Pollution (Annual PM2.5):
Los Angeles-Long Beach, California
San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, California
Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton, Pennsylvania-Ohio-West Virginia
El Centro, California
Medford-Grants Pass, Oregon
Ozone Pollution Ozone pollution, often referred to as smog, harms lung health, essentially causing a sunburn of the lung. Specifically, inhaling ozone pollution can cause shortness of breath, trigger coughing and asthma attacks, and may shorten life. Warmer temperatures make ozone more likely to form and harder to clean up.
Significantly more people suffered unhealthy ozone pollution in the 2019 report than in the last two “State of the Air” reports. Approximately 134 million people lived where they experienced too many high ozone days, the highest number of people exposed since the 2016 report. This report shows the changing climate’s impact on air quality, as ozone pollution worsened during the global record-breaking heat years tracked in the 2019 report.
Of the 10 most polluted cities for ozone, seven did worse than in last year’s report, including many of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. Los Angeles’s air quality worsened, and it remains #1 for most ozone-polluted city in the nation. Only Bakersfield, Fresno-Madera-Hanford and San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland had fewer days with high ozone than in the 2018 report.
Top 10 Most Ozone-Polluted Cities:
Los Angeles-Long Beach, California
San Diego-Chula Vista-Carlsbad, California
San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, California
Houston-The Woodlands, Texas
New York-Newark, New York–New Jersey-Connecticut-Pennsylvania
The “State of the Air” also recognizes the nation’s cleanest cities, and just like last year’s report, only six cities qualified for that status. To rank as one of the nation’s cleanest cities, a city must experience no high ozone or high particle pollution days and must rank among the 25 cities with the lowest year-round particle pollution levels during 2015-2017.
Cleanest U.S. Cities (listed in alphabetical order)
Burlington-South Burlington, Vermont
Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville, Florida
Wilmington, North Carolina
“Every American deserves to breathe healthy air that won’t make them sick. The American Lung Association calls on the Administration and Congress to protect and prioritize Americans’ health by taking urgent action to fight air pollution and address climate change,” Wimmer said.
Learn more about the 20th anniversary of the “State of the Air” report at Lung.org/sota. For media interested in speaking with an expert about lung health, healthy air, the health impacts of climate change and threats to air quality in metro regions nationwide, contact Allison MacMunn at the American Lung Association at Media@Lung.org or 312-801-7628.
More than four in 10 people live where pollution levels are too often dangerous to breathe. Learn More
Which cities have the highest levels of air pollution? Which are the cleanest? Check out the lists here. Learn More
Ozone and particle pollution are the most widespread pollutants—and among the most dangerous. Learn More
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