How have travel restrictions affected carbon emissions and air quality?
China’s efforts to control the COVID-19 outbreak seem to have curbed energy consumption — and air pollution. Satellite data collected by NASA and the European Space Agency show a sharp reduction in atmospheric levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which is produced during fossil fuel combustion, across the country.
Each year, industrial activity typically drops off as businesses and factories close for celebrations of the lunar New Year, which this year began on 25 January. This usually causes a brief dip in levels of NO2. “Normally, the pollution levels pick back up after 7–10 days, but that has not happened this year,” says Fei Liu, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. A preliminary analysis suggests that NO2 pollution after the lunar New Year was around 10–30% lower this year than during the same period in previous years. A similar trend of declining NO2 pollution has also been documented in northern Italy — where cities remain on lockdown — using data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-5P satellite.
Ongoing efforts to contain the coronavirus have suppressed China’s industrial activity by 15–40%, according to an analysis by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air in Helsinki. Coal consumption hit a four-year low in February, and oil refining fell by more than one-third. Overall, the centre’s analysis suggests that China’s carbon emissions have dropped by more than 25% as a result of the ongoing efforts to contain the coronavirus.
Air pollution and climate change are “two sides of the same coin,” according to the United Nations Environment Program. Climate change will make air pollution worse, while some air pollutants can exacerbate global climate change.
This is the topic of a recent scientific reportwritten by Elizabeth Ridlington and Gideon Weissman (Frontier Group) and Morgan Folger (Environment America Research & Policy Center).
Air pollution such as black carbon, a form of particulate pollution, exacerbates global warming. Black carbon in the air readily absorbs sunlight, increasing the temperature of the atmosphere.13 When black carbon lands on snow or ice, it absorbs heat and hastens melting. This can lead to greater warming, as open water and bare ground retain more heat from the sun than do snow or ice. Production of natural gas is a major source of VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds), which contribute to air pollution via ozone formation (see below), and also releases methane, a powerful global warming pollutant that traps more than 80 times as much heat as carbon dioxide over 20 years.14 Just as air pollution and global warming share some common causes, and are linked together in a self-reinforcing cycle, so too do they share another characteristic: scientific alarm about their threats to the environment and public health.
People across America regularly breath polluted air that increases their risk of premature death, and can also trigger asthma attacks and other adverse health impacts.
In 2018, 108 million Americans lived in areas that experienced more than 100 days of degraded air quality. That is equal to more than three months of the year in which ground-level ozone (the main ingredient in smog) and/or particulate pollution (PM2.5) were above the safe levels as determined by the EPA.
For instance, here on Long Island air quality levels by these measures are: 71-100 days/year above the EPA safe levels for ground level ozone and PM2.5.
Air pollution is linked to health problems including respiratory illness, heart attack, stroke, cancer and mental health problems. Research continues to reveal new health impacts. For example, maternal exposure to air pollution such as fine particulates (PM2.5) and ozone is associated with a higher risk of low birth weight, pre-term birth and stillbirth. For older adults, long-term exposure to particulate pollution has been associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
Air pollution’s effects are pronounced among vulnerable populations, including children, pregnant women and the elderly. Research has found that children exposed to particulate pollution can suffer from lung development problems and long-term harm to lung function.
Each year, millions of Americans suffer from adverse health impacts linked to air pollution, and tens of thousands have their lives cut short.
Two pollutants of special concern are particulate matter and ozone. Fine particulate pollution smaller than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5) poses especially high health risks because it can be deposited deep in the lungs.18Ozone that forms near the ground is the main ingredient in smog and is associated with adverse health impacts (as opposed to ozone in the high atmosphere, which blocks harmful solar ultraviolet rays from reaching the earth). These are the main culprits and are most frequently monitored by the numbers of days at a given location where levels are above the EPA’s “safe level”.
Premature death. Globally, ozone and fine particulate matter are estimated to cause 470,000 and 2.1 million deaths each year, respectively, by damaging the lungs and respiratory system.19 A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated that in the U.S. fine particulate matter generated by human activities was responsible for more than 107,000 premature deaths in 2011.20
A 2019 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that when the concentration of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) increased by 10 micrograms (μg) per cubic meter, daily mortality in the U.S. increased by 1.58 percent. A 1.58 percent increase in daily mortality equals an additional 122 deaths in the U.S. on a day when fine particulate pollution increased by 10 μg per cubic meter.21 When coarse particulate matter (PM10) increased by 10 micrograms (μg) per cubic meter, daily mortality rose 0.79 percent.22
The reverse was also observed. A 2009 study compared U.S. metropolitan areas across decades and found that a 10 μg per cubic meter decrease in fine particulate matter concentrations was associated with an increase in average life expectancy of approximately 0.6 years.23
Damage to respiratory and cardiovascular systems. In weeks with elevated ozone or particulate matter pollution, hospital emergency rooms see more patients for breathing problems.24 A 2019 study published in JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association) found that higher levels of pollutants including ozone and particulate matter in the air are associated with increased risk of emphysema.25 Air pollution, especially traffic related air pollution, not only worsens asthma but may also cause more people to develop asthma.26 Research also shows strong associations between air pollution and cardiovascular diseases including stroke.27 Particulate pollution is associated with increased risk of hospitalization for heart disease.28
Worsened mental health and functioning. A 2019 study published in PLOS Biology found that poor air quality, including higher levels of particulate matter and ozone, was associated with increases in bipolar disorder.29 Long-term exposure to particulate pollution has also been associated with increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.30
Decreased fertility and harm to pregnancies. Exposure to air pollution has been associated with difficulty in having children, and increased risk of low birth weight and premature deliveries.31 A 2019 study of women in Italy found that higher levels of particulate matter (both PM2.5 and PM10) and nitrogen dioxide are associated with lower levels of ovarian reserve, a marker of female fertility.32 A 2013 study found “short-term decreases in a couple’s ability to conceive” associated with higher levels of PM2.5 and nitrogen dioxide.33 Maternal exposure to PM2.5 or ozone is associated with a higher risk of low birth weight, pre-term birth and stillbirth.34 One study estimated that in 2010, up to 42,800 preterm births in the U.S. and Canada were related to women’s exposure to PM2.5, accounting for up to 10 percent of preterm births.35
Increased cancer risk. Exposure to air pollution can cause lung cancer and other cancers.36 The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, has found that outdoor air pollution generally, and particulate matter specifically, are carcinogenic to humans.37 The IARC determined that “exposures to outdoor air pollution or particulate matter in polluted outdoor air are associated with increases in genetic damage that have been shown to be predictive of cancer in humans.” In 2010, 223,000 lung cancer deaths globally were attributed to exposure to PM2.5.38
Air pollution likely poses health threats even at levels the EPA considers safe.
Research suggests that “moderate” air quality can, in fact, pose broad threats to public health, and a variety of medical and public health organizations have recommended tighter air quality standards that are more protective of public health. The World Health Organization (WHO), for example, recommends lower ozone and particulate pollution standards than are currently in place in the United States. The American Thoracic Society, the American Lung Association and other health associations support the same standards for fine particulates as the WHO.50
Ozone, the main component of smog, is formed by chemical reactions between nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the presence of sunlight.56 Fossil fuels – both their combustion and production – are major sources of NOx and VOC emissions.
Particulate matter consists of solid or liquid particles that can be emitted directly from a source or that can form in the air from chemicals such as VOCs, sulfur dioxide, ammonia and NOx.65 Fine particulates smaller than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5) pose elevated health risks as they can be absorbed deep into the lungs.66 The impact of PM2.5 is further increased by the fact that it is so lightweight that it remains in the air for a long time and can travel hundreds of miles from its source.67 Primary particulate matter is created by a variety of sources, including fossil fuel combustion; dust from roads, agriculture and construction; wildfires; and wood burned for heating.68 On average across the U.S., the majority of the particulate pollution in the atmosphere is secondary particulate pollution, which forms through a chemical reaction.69 Secondary PM2.5 can be created from sources including sulfur dioxide emitted by burning coal and other fossil fuels for electricity generation and industrial power; nitrogen oxides from fossil fuel combustion; and ammonia from fertilizer and manure.70 Mobile sources (including cars, trucks and other on-road vehicles and also off-road vehicles) accounted for 20 percent of both primary and secondary PM2.5, according to one 2004 study.71
Global warming will make air pollution worse.
Higher temperatures have already resulted in increased ozone, despite lower emissions of the chemicals that create ozone. In the central U.S. in the summer of 2012, for example, higher temperatures caused higher levels of ozone than in the years before and after.83
The American Lung Association found that ozone was higher in the 2014 to 2016 period than in previous recent three-year study periods, and attributed the increase to higher temperatures.84
Hotter, drier conditions have increased wildfires, which create particulate pollution as well as VOCs and nitrogen oxides that contribute to ozone formation. By one estimate, global warming nearly doubled the total acreage that burned in western states from 1984 to 2015, compared to a scenario in which the climate had not changed.85 Wildfires also burn for longer, causing more prolonged and widespread exposure to pollutants. The typical large wildfire now burns for more than seven weeks, compared to less than a week in the 1970s.86
One study estimates global warming will increase the number of air pollution-related premature deaths if no measures are implemented to counteract global warming’s impact on air quality. The analysis, published in 2017, estimates that an additional 1,130 Americans may die prematurely in the year 2030 from smog pollution under a scenario where global warming emissions are high and unchecked.100 The study also estimates that particulate pollution worsened by global warming could cause an extra 6,900 premature deaths in 2030.
In many cases, the activities that cause air pollution also contribute to global warming. Efforts to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, which contribute to global warming, have the potential to help reduce ozone and particulate pollution as well.
Progress on air pollution has stalled. Though air quality in the U.S. has improved over the decades, in recent years that progress has slowed. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calculates that the average level of ozone pollution dropped by 31 percent from 1980 to 2018 and that fine particulate pollution dropped by 34 percent from 2000 to 2018.107 However, the agency’s analysis of elevated ozone and particulate pollution in 35 major cities shows that the number of days of pollution was higher in each of the years from 2015 through 2018 than it was in 2013 or 2014.108 Furthermore, the agency’s data show that 2018 had more days of pollution than each of the previous five years. The data analysis for this report reveals that the increase in days of elevated air pollution means that millions more Americans lived in areas with polluted air in 2018 than in 2016.109
There are of course a number of policy recommendations:
Support zero-emission vehicles
Create a strong regional program to reduce transportation emissions under the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI) in northeastern and mid-Atlantic states
Ensure that states can adopt and strengthen pollution standards for passenger vehicles
Maintain strong federal fuel economy and global warming pollution standards for transportation
Support policies that can reduce driving and increase walking, biking and the use of transit.
Supporting clean, renewable energy. Move the country away from fossil fuels – which are a major source of climate pollution in transportation, electricity generation and buildings – and toward the use of clean, renewable energy like wind turbines and solar panels.
Maintain the gains already achieved under implementation of the Clean Air Act
BlackRock, the world’s largest money manager, will make sustainability and climate risks key tenets of its investing strategy, a move that its chief executive said should push financial institutions to prioritize climate change issues.
But activists noted the firm’s lackluster history on this front and the need for it to push further.
“Climate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects,” BlackRock chairman and chief executive Larry Fink said in his annual letter to chief executives. “But awareness is rapidly changing, and I believe we are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance.”
In a separate letter to investors, BlackRock announced it would exit investments with high environmental risks, including thermal coal, which is burned to produce electricity and creates carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. BlackRock will also launch new investment products that screen for fossil fuels.
The nation’s largest financial institutions are under increasing pressure from investors, activists and some political leaders for their tepid response to climate change, even as the Trump administration has systematically rolled back environmental regulations to promote economic growth.
Over the past year, Pope Francis met with chief executives and board chairs of leading oil and gas companies and financial firms, including Fink of BlackRock, and urged them to take steps to curb climate change. Activists have launched a campaign called Stop the Money Pipeline. And investors have flocked increasingly to mutual funds or money managers who screen out shareholdings in fossil fuel companies.
“This is a major, major crack in the dam,” said Bill McKibben, a writer and climate activist who was arrested last week at a protest at a Chase bank in the District. “The financial powers in New York have tried to ignore climate risk, but that’s now impossible; the pressure from activists, and from the climate chaos in the real world, is simply too great.”AD
BlackRock oversees an industry-leading $7 trillion in assets, and its pivot is sure to be closely watched by its competitors …
Many of them have become more transparent — and have marketed select funds that might appeal to customers concerned about climate change. Vanguard said in December that its funds included $319.82 billion in fossil fuel investments. In 103 of its funds, 6,457 fossil fuel stocks made up 8.48 percent of its assets. Only nine Vanguard funds were “A Grade” fossil free.
The investment firm Raymond James estimates that $12 trillion, or 26 percent of all U.S. professionally managed assets, are covered by some kind of environment, social or governance screen. Of that amount, the largest slice — $3 trillion — is centered on climate.AD
In interviews, Fink said the science behind climate change is pushing clients to reassess their long- and short-term investments.
“Will cities, for example, be able to afford their infrastructure needs as climate risk reshapes the market for municipal bonds?” Fink wrote in his chief executive letter. “What will happen to the 30-year mortgage — a key building block of finance — if lenders can’t estimate the impact of climate risk over such a long timeline?”
He said the risks posed by climate change are the most significant he’s seen in four decades of finance. Fink, a Democrat, said he wasn’t acting as an environmentalist but, rather, as a capitalist with a responsibility to clients and investors.
“We don’t have a Federal Reserve to stabilize the world like in the five or six financial crises that occurred during my 40 years in finance,” Fink told CNBC. “This is bigger, it requires more planning, it requires more public and private connections together to solve these problems.”AD
Earlier this month, BlackRock joined Climate Action 100+, an investor initiative to ensure the world’s largest corporate emitters of greenhouse gases act to lessen their carbon footprints. BlackRock joined more than 370 global investors, a group that collectively manages more than $41 trillion in assets.
But BlackRock’s past track record has been weak. Ceres, a sustainability nonprofit, has ranked BlackRock 43rd among 48 asset managers based on its history of backing few climate-related proposals from shareholders. But the group appeared encouraged by Fink’s letter.
“BlackRock is now throwing their weight behind what already exists — a global movement to really addressing sustainability in portfolios,” said the Rev. Kirsten Snow Spalding, senior department director of Ceres’s investor network. “They’re not the first to the party, but just adding their weight is critical.”
One of the companies that has taken a position on climate issues is Goldman Sachs, which in December said it would no longer lend money to oil and gas projects in the Arctic. The bank said it considered climate change and its effects on indigenous people and wildlife. “We will decline any financing transaction that directly supports new upstream Arctic oil exploration or development,” Goldman said. “This includes but is not limited to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”AD
But Goldman hasn’t sworn off all oil and gas investments. Around the same time it issued its environmental concerns, one of its analysts recommended eight oil stocks for investors to buy.
What may be bad for the borrowers of money for fossil fuel investments may not be bad for the financial investment and management business.
Fink said he has increasingly heard from clients worldwide who want to factor climate change into their investment portfolios. And he said he expects a marked generational change as young people increasingly focus on sustainable investing.
Fink said financial investing will have to play a role in “a huge energy transition” over the coming decades. That includes weighing whether fossil fuels, for example, are a good investment both today and 10 years down the line.
“We need to have an organized plan,” Fink told CNBC. “We are not running away from hydrocarbons. We believe they play a role. We believe natural gas plays a very large role in the energy transition. We believe this is a process.”AD
While Fink on Tuesday clearly signaled that BlackRock would not support coal firms, he did not altogether rule out support for oil and natural gas companies. Activist groups said the test would come in the spring when BlackRock will have an opportunity to use its massive stock holdings to vote on shareholder resolutions linked to climate change.
“One key thing we’ll be looking for is how BlackRock changes its behavior in voting season,” said Ben Cushing, a climate campaign representative at the Sierra Club. “For years it held back on holding companies accountable on climate action. Now, it has the opportunity as it heads into annual shareholding season to vote the right way in the companies it has major stakes in.”
“BlackRock is at the same place the Obama administration was a decade ago, with natural gas as a bridge fuel,” McKibben, the climate activist, said. “The science has moved decisively on, and so we will push them hard going forward.”
There is already evidence of a real estate slump in the United States. A housing recession is predicted for 2020. The average price of luxury home sales is falling, as is the number of sales. Long Island specifically is suffering as sales decrease and homes lose value. This is rather astonishing given that the rest of the economy is still on steroids.
What are the reasons? The following have all been suggested.
First, baby boomers from New York are downsizing and moving to lower-tax states. Second, millennials seem to have a distaste for buying second homes and would rather rent. Third, bonuses on Wall Street fell 17 percent in 2018 compared with 2017.
Fourth, the tax changes brought on by Donald Trump: a cap of $10,000 on the amount of state and local taxes (SALT), including property taxes, that can be deducted from federal income tax. For an expensive home with property taxes of $50,000 per year, this means that $40,000 can no longer be deducted.
Fifth, as mentioned by some real estate professionals: chronic flooding, which threatens the values of houses here. According to Aidan Gardiner writing for The Real Deal, a website focusing on New York real estate news: “Chronic flooding threatens to sink the value of Hamptons homes. Hamptons homes are very likely to lose value given that they’ll face chronic flooding as climate changes and sea levels rise over the coming years, according to Bloomberg. Behind only central California, the area has the second-highest level of its property tax revenue at risk among U.S. municipalities with a high likelihood of chronic flooding in the next 12 years. Climate change is expected to bring constant floods that would tank property values, erode infrastructure, and sink tax revenue, all of which will make it harder to fund projects to battle the rising seas.”
You can check for yourself on ss2.climatecentral.org, where you can find a “risk zone map for surging seas.” See the figure appended below. You can input anything from “unchecked pollution” to “extreme carbon cuts,” depending on how you predict future policies will rein in carbon emissions.
I assumed unchecked carbon emissions along the lines of our present-day emissions, and I asked for maps of a 10-foot water level rise. The program produces maps with dark blue shaded areas that will be underwater. Here are some of the highlights for the not so distant future (2050 to 2100).
Montauk will become an island, the Napeague stretch will be underwater, and much of downtown Montauk will be too, including Route 27. Flooding of Route 27 across Napeague will start with just a three-foot rise in sea water levels, shutting down access to Montauk.
Homes all around Accabonac Harbor will be flooded. Gerard Drive and Louse Point will be submerged. Maidstone Park, Sammy’s Beach, and Cedar Point will be gone. Barcelona Point and the Sag Harbor Golf Course will become an island.
Beach homes in Amagansett, homes along Two Mile Hollow Beach, homes around Hook Pond, Georgica Pond, and Wainscott Pond will all be underwater. Indeed, a few homes on Beach Lane in Wainscott will be submerged. That is where the cable from the South Fork Wind Farm is proposed to come ashore and where some of its opponents own property.
Much of Sag Harbor Village will be underwater, and North Haven will be a real island.
Up and down Long Island, the homes close to the South Shore will be underwater, and Fire Island will no longer exist.
The North Shore, too, will be flooded, and Greenport will be on an island.
Kennedy International Airport will be underwater.
It is not just someone else’s problem. Loss of value of high-end homes means loss of significant local business and loss of jobs, and it spills over, resulting in loss of the value of your own property regardless of whether it is in particular danger of flooding.
Showtime’s “The Affair” recently wrapped up its final season, and part of it was set in mid-21st-century Montauk, with warming temperatures and rising seas. The show forecasts what life will look like in 34 short years, including mass transit that routinely short-circuits because of flooding, coastal communities plunged into near-total darkness, and shoreline towns without basic municipal services.
We had better support clean energy (including offshore wind) and work to decrease our carbon footprint. It is urgent.
David Posnett is a member of the Steering Committee of Win With Wind.
Richard DeRose of Wainscott walks his dog at the town beach on Beach Lane in Wainscott, likely site of a cable landing for the South Fork Wind Farm. Dec. 5 Credit: Newsday/Mark Harrington
Thanks for your Dec. 9 news story on the South Fork offshore wind project [“Negotiations over cable”] about talks regarding the landing site of an electrical cable. As a former commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, I’m no stranger to local opposition to projects like this. But the opposition by Citizens for the Preservation of Wainscott to the cable landing is “not in my backyard” on steroids. I encourage this small group of owners of second homes to reconsider.
The cable landing in Wainscott is preferred because it is the least environmentally disruptive and would affect the fewest people for the shortest period. Unfortunately, despite the need to rapidly move away from fossil fuels, the citizens group is taking an irrational “anyplace but here” attitude. The temporary inconvenience from burying the cable would be minimal, and would occur in the offseason, when most owners of second homes are not around.
Connecting this offshore energy to the Long Island grid is now being reviewed by several state agencies. I believe this time-tested process, along with decisions by local officials, will produce a project that is good for the South Fork, Long Island and the state. I urge citizens of Wainscott to support it. After all, coastal property owners have the most to lose if New York does not lead the way in combating climate change.
Joe Martens, East Hampton
Editor’s note: The writer is director of the New York Offshore Wind Alliance, a coalition of organizations supporting wind power.