Lessons from the PandemicAug 03, 2020 06:16PM ● By June Blotnick
During the first month of the pandemic, with 40 to 60 percent fewer cars on the road, many people assumed there would be an improvement in our air quality. That assumption made sense, given that the transportation and energy sectors are the top two sources of air pollution and millions of Americans had stopped driving. The pandemic offered us a chance to observe a real-time air-quality experiment and learn what we could from decreases in traffic pollution.
Research is ongoing, but the findings so far have varied from city to city, depending on its sources of pollution. While passenger cars are the key source of pollution in Charlotte, in Los Angeles, a port city, vast truck fleets are a dominant source. In Pittsburgh and other eastern cities, much of the air pollution comes from burning coal for electricity.
As one of America’s fastest-growing cities, Charlotte struggles to meet the transportation needs of its increasing population. Most people still get around by car. But with stronger fuel-economy standards and more hybrid and electric vehicles on the road, car emissions represent a smaller percentage of mobile-source pollution than they used to. Heavy-duty buses and trucks make up a smaller percentage of vehicles but contribute a much greater percentage of pollution, and trucking may have increased during the pandemic. Still, it’s critical that we reduce the number of cars on our roads.
The pandemic has taught us that telecommuting on a large scale is possible and will go a long way toward reducing air pollution caused by stop-and-start traffic on major roads and highways. Getting more cars off the road will make it easier for the city to increase our public transit options as well as the number of bike lanes, greenways and pedestrian walkways, giving us more transportation choices.
Burning fossil fuels in the transportation and the energy sectors does more than pollute the air. Greenhouse gases emitted from tailpipes and smokestacks are also driving climate change. Since almost half our energy comes from coal and natural gas, we can reduce air pollution and our carbon footprint by becoming more energy efficient. Joining the growing number of home and business owners who use solar energy to supplement their demand will also benefit your pocketbook and the environment.
Another lesson we’ve learned from the pandemic is the disproportionate extent to which residents from black and brown communities are suffering and dying from Covid-19. Higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease and other health issues—disparities often caused by proximity to pollution sources like power plants, highways and Superfund sites—make those communities more vulnerable to disease.
As we eventually recover from this pandemic, emerge from the lockdown and begin rebuilding our economy, we have the opportunity to protect public health and the environment by encouraging our government to enact policies supporting cleaner forms of electricity, transportation and job growth. We hope North Carolinians will consider this when they vote in November.
June Blotnick is executive director of Clean Air Carolina, a 501c3 nonprofit whose mission is to improve air quality for all North Carolinians through education and advocacy and by working with partners to reduce sources of pollution. For more information, call 704-307-9528 or visit CleanAirCarolina.org.