Will our clean air last after COVID-19?

A UCLA study has revealed that clean air could endure after the COVID-19 lockdown. Achieving net-zero emissions in California by 2050 can prevent thousands of deaths annually in every community, according to the researchers.

(Image credit: Ian Britton, flickr/Creative Commons)

Since millions of Californians began staying at home and off the roads in March, air quality in the Golden State has visibly improved. Once life returns to normal, however, air pollution levels are likely to return to their prepandemic levels.

A team of UCLA researchers argues this does not have to be our fate, writes a statement. They describe a pathway for California to dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution by 2050. Taken together, these actions would prevent about 14,000 premature deaths from air pollution–related illnesses each year, all while helping to reduce climate change, the researchers say.

Air pollution is linked to a host of health problems, including respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, neurological problems, cancers, and adverse pregnancy outcomes. People exposed to elevated levels of air pollution also have a higher chance of getting sick with influenza and are more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Immediate and long-term public health benefits

“It doesn’t need to take a global pandemic to create cleaner air and healthier lives,” said Yifang Zhu, one of the study’s lead authors. “Climate action directly benefits people at a local and regional scale by creating cleaner air. The public health benefits are both immediate and long-term, and we can save the economy billions each year.”

To limit the rise in global temperature to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) above preindustrial levels by 2100 — the threshold for avoiding the most severe effects of global warming — the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that human-caused emissions will need to be reduced to nearly zero, and any remaining emissions will need to be captured and stored. This is known as net-zero emissions, or carbon neutrality.

Achieving this globally is no easy feat, but the study shows how it can be done in California — creating the first-ever roadmap for the state to get there by 2050 using existing policies and technologies.

 A net-zero emissions scenario

Collaborators from the UCLA Joint Institute for Regional Earth System Science and Engineering contributed state-of-the-art modeling to analyze how ambient air quality would change under a net-zero emissions scenario. Then, the researchers combined the model with epidemiological data and information to estimate the impact of cleaner air on public health.

Unlike with the current COVID-19 crisis, achieving net-zero emissions postpandemic would benefit the economy. By 2050, the monetary savings of greenhouse gas reductions will exceed the cost by $109 billion a year, the study found.

The study’s authors intend for their research to help state and local policymakers visualize how taking bold action on climate change will directly benefit people.

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