By Aaron Bernstein
BOSTON – The COVID-19 crisis has brought economies around the world to a standstill. Huge swaths of manufacturing have been idled, and sectors such as aviation and tourism are largely shuttered. Amid all the economic ruin, some have pointed to a supposed silver lining: cleaner air. But while it is true that today’s lower air pollution will temporarily spare some people’s health, it is also true that winds are much calmer in the eye of a hurricane. Last year, roughly six million people worldwide died as a consequence of air pollution produced from burning fossil fuels. Such pollution will likely lead to nearly as many deaths in 2020, despite the cleaner air resulting from COVID-19 lockdowns. Air pollution from burning fossil fuels causes heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer, and diabetes. Children who breathe contaminated air are more likely to suffer from asthma. And polluted air can also harm pregnant women, resulting in premature or underweight babies.
But we can reduce this growing toll on our health. As our economies kick back into gear after the threat from COVID-19 passes, we should implement climate solutions that will not only prevent the harms caused by air pollution but also might just forestall the next pandemic.
A recent study by some of my Harvard colleagues provided the first clear evidence that a small increase in long-term exposure to particulate matter air pollution can significantly increase the odds of someone dying from COVID-19. This effect was apparent even after accounting for other factors, such as pre-existing health conditions, socioeconomic status, and access to health care.
Likewise, other researchers had previously shown that air pollution made people more likely to die from severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), another coronavirus. A 2003 study found that someone living in a highly polluted area of China was more than twice as likely to die from SARS than someone living in an area with cleaner air. Chinese cities with high or moderate levels of air pollution had death rates of 8.9% and 7.5% respectively, compared to a 4% rate in areas with low air pollution. Past research has also shown that air pollution can accelerate the spread of respiratory infections
Given this, it is no surprise that communities already suffering from air pollution – often communities of colour and the poor – have been particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. These populations are now experiencing a double burden: severe illness in the form of COVID-19, in addition to the well-known long-term harms from breathing contaminated air.
All this deepens existing economic and social injustices. Poorer people are more likely to be laid off during the current pandemic, even in wealthier countries, and are also more likely to be exposed to the virus.
Governments can help to end this vicious cycle by speeding up climate action, including by adopting renewable energy and preventing deforestation. By addressing the factors that drive the emergence and spread of infectious diseases, such policies will protect everyone, especially those most at risk.
During the current pandemic, however, some governments have moved to bail out polluting industries and weaken air-quality standards. In the United States, federal authorities, citing the COVID-19 crisis, have suspended enforcement of environmental regulations. And despite the expected impact on the climate, construction has started on the Keystone XL oil pipeline across the US-Canada border, while President Donald Trump’s administration recently rolled back vehicle fuel-efficiency standards.
Similarly, South Africa has slashed air-pollution standards for coal power plants, allowing them to emit twice as much sulfur dioxide as before. And in Brazil, state protection of the Amazon rainforest, already dwindling ahead of the fire season, has weakened further as a result of COVID-19 risks, with fewer enforcement agents going out into the field.
Today, governments are rightly focused on meeting their citizens’ immediate needs. But as we start to rebuild from this pandemic, we must pressure policymakers to ensure that structural changes do not reinforce business-as-usual scenarios by propping up polluting industries. Instead, we must improve air quality by expanding renewable energy, increasing energy efficiency, and building innovative transportation systems. These measures will save lives, protect communities against pandemic risks, and help to ensure a livable climate for our children.
As Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, recently put it, “COVID-19 is the most urgent threat facing humanity today, but we cannot forget that climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity over the long term.” She is right, and one of the most effective ways to fend off acute threats like COVID-19 is to tackle the larger global crisis we face.
Aaron Bernstein, a paediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, is Interim Director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.