April 18 – SDUT – Deborah Sullivan Brennan reports – As San Diegans close themselves up at home during the COVID-19 crisis, the region’s skies have taken a deep breath.

One of the unintended consequences of isolation has been fewer car trips and less air pollution. While no one would choose this path to clean air, officials see a chance to revisit air pollution and climate strategies in order to maintain some of those reductions once business as usual resumes.

Telecommuting, once a footnote to many climate action plans, is now viewed as a viable option for many businesses that don’t require workers to be physically present every day. And reducing vehicle trips by carefully planning errands and other car travel — now a necessity to reduce exposure to the coronavirus — could be a healthy habit to maintain once the pandemic is over.

“The coronavirus has been horrible and we certainly wish none of this would have ever happened,” said San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, a leader of the county’s COVID-19 response and board member of both the state and local air boards.

“But when we go through tragedy and crisis and difficulty, a lot of times it has an impact on our actions. After the September 11 attacks, we never got on an airplane the same way. I think there is an opportunity coming out of this for a much more widespread use of telecommuting, telework and telemedicine.”

Oxides of nitrogen, one of the key air pollutants and a precursor to smog, is down by about 20 percent to 30 percent during peak commute hours at sites in Chula Vista and El Cajon for the month of March compared to last year, according to preliminary data from the San Diego Air Pollution Control District.

“It’s not a huge number… just because the (NOX) numbers are pretty low in general” after decades of tightened emission standards, said Bill Brick, chief of monitoring and technical services for the San Diego Air Pollution Control District. “But it’s still a significant drop.”

Levels of fine particulates, tiny particles that lodge in the lungs, are also down in the morning and afternoon periods for March of this year compared to last year, preliminary air board data show.

The declines in NOX levels in San Diego County mirror those observed in other parts of the country and world during the pandemic closures. Scientists measured drops in the pollutant over China and Italy as those countries shut down earlier this year. Researchers also found that carbon monoxide levels plunged by half in New York City, and greenhouse emissions fell slightly during the coronavirus shutdown of that city.

Although NOX isn’t a climate pollutant, experts say the decline in vehicle traffic is a close proxy for carbon emissions. And the number of vehicle trips is way down as a result of the stay-at-home orders and social distancing, according to a system that tracks vehicle traffic through smartphone location apps.

When schools closed March 16, vehicle miles dropped by 20 percent to 30 percent compared to the beginning of March, said Nilmini Silva-Send, assistant director at the Energy Policy Initiatives Center (EPIC) at University of San Diego School of Law. On March 19, the governor issued the stay-at-home order for California, and vehicle traffic plunged by 80 percent compared to the start of the month.

“So that would be directly proportional to greenhouse emissions, because it’s related to cars burning gasoline, which they aren’t,” she said.

Those declines are more than steps toward air-quality policy goals; they could be a matter of life and death. Spikes in air pollution levels are strongly associated with increased hospitalizations and deaths from respiratory illness, heart attacks and strokes. Those are emergencies that the over-extended health care system can ill afford, as medical staff focus on treating COVID-19 patients.

Moreover, a new study out of Harvard found that exposure to fine particulates worsens the prognosis for those very patients fighting coronavirus infection. Just one extra microgram per cubic meter of fine particulates is associated with a 15 percent increase in the COVID-19 death rate, the study concluded.

“A small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 leads to a large increase in COVID-19 death rate,” the study states.

“There’s no doubt at all that people with respiratory conditions are more vulnerable to spikes in pollution on bad air days,” said Will Barrett, director of clean air advocacy for the American Lung Association in California. “And to the extent that those are diminished, that’s one less threat that people are experiencing at a time when we know just how important protecting our lungs, and especially the lungs of those most vulnerable, is.”

Although the study looks at long-term particulate exposure and not immediate pollution levels, the authors argue that suppressing air pollution on an ongoing basis is important to managing illness and hospitalization during the pandemic.

“The results of this study also underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations during the COVID-19 crisis,” the authors state. “Based on our result, we anticipate a failure to do so can potentially increase the COVID-19 death toll and hospitalizations, further burdening our health care system and drawing resources away from COVID-19 patients.”

The research highlights how the twin inequities of infectious disease and poor air quality conspire to sicken the poorest and most vulnerable people, and illuminates the need for air-quality solutions long after the COVID-19 crisis subsides, officials said.

“That’s a light that we need to be bright, and we need it to shine deep into the unequal nature of public health in America,” Fletcher said.

Curbing air emissions is also key to bending the curve on climate change, which presents its own host of human health and disease risks, including the rapid spread of food-, vector- and water-borne illnesses, experts said.

“I hope that people will see that to overcome a massive life-and-death threat that affects all of us, we need to accept the science, and pool our resources and make collective decisions,” said Masada Disenhouse, executive director of San Diego 350, which advocates for climate mitigation. “Ultimately, climate change is like that, but even more devastating.”

The COVID-19 pandemic offers a hopeful glimpse of “how quickly you can show decreases in air pollution and climate emissions,” Disenhouse said, but she and others cautioned that those improvements in air quality will likely be temporary unless we adopt new habits for work and transportation.

“We also know that the underlying causes of air pollution are going to come roaring back, and that’s why it’s important that we keep our eyes on the long-term solutions to air pollution challenges,” Barrett said.

The COVID-19 closures forced the adoption of telecommuting to a degree that had never been attempted before. The result, while fraught with Zoom glitches and sluggish Internet connections, was more successful than many managers and employees expected. Even environmental groups hadn’t really considered the potential of remote work as a tool for greenhouse gas reduction, said Nicole Capretz, executive director of the Climate Action Campaign.

“We just have this cultural bias toward needing everybody to be at the office in order to have a productive work environment,” she said. “I think what we’re learning is that bias wasn’t necessarily accurate, and that people can still work at home and be productive members of the workplace.”

As air travel has declined due to coronavirus risks, people have managed to convene business meetings and conferences online as well, opening another avenue for carbon reductions, Disenhouse said. And walking and cycling have also picked up, as people seek to get exercise, let off steam and even run errands while under closures, Capretz said.

While walking, biking and telecommuting may be seen as solutions during and after the COVID-19 crisis, officials say other strategies for reducing greenhouse emissions, such as transit use and housing density, may fall out of favor in light of social-distancing protocols.

“Video conferencing technology has become a tremendous resource that will greatly reduce emissions,” San Diego County Supervisor Jim Desmond said. “I think many companies have realized they can have certain employees work from home, thus reducing cars on the road. However, I also think you will continue to see less people taking public transit in light of this pandemic.”

That’s a problem, Fletcher said, because the county’s climate action plan depends on increasing transit and building denser neighborhoods in order to slash vehicle trips.

“The reluctance to embrace those two things could offset any gains in the other areas,” he said, adding that San Diegans will have to be “very thoughtful and intentional” about rebuilding transit ridership while also protecting public health.

San Diego leaders agree that the COVID-19 pandemic will forever alter how people do business and live their lives. The challenge will be to steer those changes toward a healthier path for the region.

“It’s not a silver lining we’re in, but I think it’s a moment for inflection,” Capretz said. “Was our lifestyle serving us? Was perpetually putting pollution into the air sustainable? Are there ways we can change the way we move people around, the way we grow, the way we structure our economy, that lead to a cleaner and safer future?”

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