I Can See Clearly Now

  John Eichberger |  April 2020

Growing up in Southern California in the 1970s and 1980s, I experienced first-hand the impact of air pollution and smog. There were so many days as a child that we were not able to take recess outside because of Smog Alerts indicating that it was unhealthy to be outside. There was a digital clock on top of a bank building about a mile from my house – some days it was clear as could be; other days you could not even see where it should have been. There was a real necessity to change how we treated our air. Have we gotten better?  It seems we have, but that does not mean we are done.

The economic shut down associated with the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020 had serious ramifications for so many elements of society, from social interactions to economic conditions.  But one element that caught my eye was the impact on air quality. With Inrix reporting nearly a 50% drop in vehicle miles traveled (national average), the United States (and indeed the world) experienced a virtual inoculation for air quality.

Just take a look at the interactive map provided by Gizmodo showing nitrogen dioxide (NO2 or NOx) concentrations in January 2020 verse March 2020. (NOx can be measured by satellite imagery and is often used as an indicator for air pollution.) The nearly immediate impact on improved air quality resulting from the catastrophe that was coronavirus was impressive.

The imagery brings to mind a song made re-famous by Jimmy Cliff in 1993, “I Can See Clearly Now.”  The song was featured in the movie about Jamaican bobsledders “Cool Runnings,” but was originally recorded by Johnny Nash in 1971.  It is a great tune (and hilarious movie), even if it is outside of my usual genres:

I can see clearly now the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It's gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day

If we could replace “the rain is gone” with “the smog is gone,” how great would that be?  And for a brief moment in time, we were able to say that. Of course, the world cannot sustain such a dramatic reduction in economic activity that led to the drop in travel and reduced emissions, but this experience made me think – how are we doing in our pursuit of improved air quality?

(It is worth noting that when I write about air quality in this article, I am referring to what is commonly considered air pollution and not greenhouse gas emissions. In this respect, air pollution, or criteria pollutants as described below, can often be visible in the form of smog and directly affects human respiratory conditions, whereas greenhouse gas emissions are typically associated with longer-term environmental implications.)

Do We Still Care About Air Quality?

According to a survey published by Gallup in April 2019, 74% of Americans said they were at least fairly concerned or concerned a great deal about air pollution. While this is down from 88% in 2000, it still shows that three out of four Americans remain concerned.

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What Contributes to Air Pollution?

With air pollution remaining a national interest of the people, and a high priority for government agencies, where should the primary focus be directed?  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the primary source of emissions really depends on what pollutant you wish to address. If you are most concerned about sulfur dioxide (SO2 or SOx), volatile organic compounds (VOC) or ammonia (NH3), then you should be looking at industrial and stationary sources.  However, if your focus is carbon monoxide (CO) or NO2, highway and non-road transport should be your focal points. The satellite imagery provided by Gizmodo shows an improvement in NOx pollution – consequently, this was primarily driven by the coronavirus inspired drop in mobility.

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Are We Better Off Than When I Was a Kid?

It seems we can pinpoint where the emissions originate, and we know that Americans are concerned about air pollution in general, but what has the nation done in the recent past to address the issue?  To measure and help control harmful air pollutants, the Clean Air Act directed EPA to set National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for those pollutants considered harmful to public health and the environment. There are six criteria air pollutants included in the NAAQS:  ground level ozone (O3), particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), carbon monoxide (CO), lead (Pb), sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). The following chart shows the average concentration of these pollutants since 1990 as a percentage of the most recent national standards. As you can see, as of 2013 all measurements of these pollutants have fallen below the national standard, on a national average. This is a significant achievement that should be celebrated.

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Of course, this does not mean that all areas of the country are in attainment with NAAQS. A recent analysis published by the American Lung Association, “State of the Air 2020,” found that “too many cities across the nation increased the number of days when particle pollution, often called "soot," soared to often record-breaking levels. More cities suffered from higher numbers of days when ground-level ozone, also known as "smog," reached unhealthy levels. Many cities saw their year-round levels of particle pollution increase as well.”

Clearly, there remains work to be done to ensure that the air we breathe is healthy and provides a clear view of the blue sky. But we have made progress. The number of U.S. days with unhealthy air has come down dramatically since the beginning of this century. According to EPA, this chart shows the number of days in which the combined ozone and PM2.5 air quality index was unhealthy for sensitive groups or above.

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Look all around, there's nothing but blue skies
Look straight ahead, there's nothing but blue skies

Can We Afford Cleaner Air?

To get cleaner air, how much might it cost us is a common question raised in the debate about more stringent requirements – and it is a legitimate question. I have often stated that the most progressive environmental initiative will not be sustainable if it will impose too significant of an economic burden on family budgets.  But it is important to remember that environmental progress and economic prosperity need not be mutually exclusive terms. It would require compromise on both fronts to find the correct balance, not to mention often-missing mutual respect for advocates on either side of the issue, but the results would be well worth the effort.

According to EPA data, the past 50 years have demonstrated that the economy can grow at the same time we are controlling and reducing emissions. Since 1970, GDP is up 275%, vehicle miles traveled are up 190%, population has grown 60% and energy consumption is up 49%.  At the same time, CO2 emissions were up only 22% and criteria pollutants were down 74%.  This is clear evidence that we can have both cleaner air and prosperity – if we make both objectives a priority.

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What’s Next?

For all of the heartache, misery, loneliness and frustration that the coronavirus has imposed on society, it is incumbent upon everyone to learn whatever lessons we can. From the perspective of air quality, it has shown me that we can aspire to live within communities where smog alert days are a thing of the past, where the air we breathe does not contribute to asthma or complicate respiratory distress associated with other illnesses. We have made great progress and should be very proud of what we have achieved – but as the American Lung Association reports, we still have work to do.

At the same time, however, we have to pursue strategies that strengthen the economics of the American family and businesses that have been ravaged by the economic shut down imposed to slow the spread of the pandemic. We cannot lose sight of this either.

There is a path forward, but it will require advocates on both sides of the equation to set aside their animosity and rhetoric, roll up their sleeves and respectfully sit down together to develop plans that are sustainable for the environment and the economy. Maybe my isolation has rendered me too Pollyannic for my own good.  But you know what, I was told when we started the Fuels Institute that we would never be able to get the biofuels, petroleum, automotive, retail and other industries to collaborate constructively to provide necessary educational resources to the market and that I was a Pollyanna – but we did it.

“I’m feeling very Olympic today!” (Sanka Coffie, “Cool Runnings!”)

So, if I am Pollyannic, despite my notorious personal cynicism, bring it on.  Let’s work together for a better future.

I think I can make it now the pain is gone
All of the bad feelings have disappeared
Here is that rainbow I've been praying for
It's gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day