Much of the world is seeing significant reductions in many air pollutant and greenhouse
gas emissions due to efforts to stem the covid-19 pandemic (Han et al. 2020; He et
al. 2020). This is a stark confirmation of the contribution of our everyday activities
to sources of emissions of the air pollutants that we breathe and the greenhouse gases
that drive global warming. The speed with which emissions have fallen shows how quickly
we can improve our environment when motivated and how vulnerable we are living in
It is important to recognize that these changes are not unexpected. Similar decreases
in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions have occurred due to short-term events
such as clean air policies put in place for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the 2008–2009
global recession (Castellanos and Boersma 2012; Tong et al. 2016) as well as from
long-term air quality management policies (Dedoussi et al. 2020).
As with previous shocks, we know that pollution continues to occur even with significant
government-imposed constraints. For example, pollutants from transport and industrial
sectors have decreased but not from residential or agricultural sources. Moreover,
some pollutants, like ozone, result from secondary atmospheric processes resulting
in nonlinear links between reduced emissions and ambient concentrations (Wang et al.
While these decreases result in public health benefits from improved air quality,
they come at the unacceptable cost of thousands of deaths, rapidly increasing unemployment,
and staggering economic dislocation. And, at the individual level, some families may
be exposed to even greater pollution levels (e.g. from increased open-burning cookstove
meals) during the lockdown.
There is also much we are continuing to learn about potential links between exposure
to poor air quality and vulnerability to the impacts of covid-19 as well as other
important socio-economic aspects which could increase vulnerability. However, there
is already strong evidence that for respiratory infections in general (Mehta et al.
2013), air pollution worsens their severity, with some evidence of an interaction
from SARS (Cui et al. 2003) as well as emerging studies on the air pollution and covid-19
(Wu et al. 2020). Given that economic activity has already re-started while the pandemic
is still underway, it is more than prudent to consider improved air quality as an
additional measure to help reduce the burden placed on healthcare systems.
As our understanding of these links improve, it will give us even greater motivation
to commit to long-term sustainable energy and environmental policies. Despite the
acute challenge of this global pandemic, we cannot allow it to compromise our efforts
to tackle the world’s inescapable, linked, and ongoing challenges of climate change,
poor air quality, unsustainable development, and the loss of biodiversity.
As was the case with past shocks, current emissions reductions are not sustainable
and will return to pre-event levels unless we use the emergence from the economic
downturn as an opportunity for transformational change (Peters et al. 2012). How we
decide to stimulate the economy in response to the covid-19 virus can have enormous
impacts on these longstanding global threats.
As governments apply economic stimulus efforts, it is more important than ever that
these make the connection between health, air pollution, climate, and the environment.
By addressing climate, air pollution, and sustainable development as an integrated
problem, we can identify technologies, lifestyle changes, and policy solutions which
achieve multiple near-term benefits efficiently, sustainably, and often at lower cost
than solutions that no not consider both the economy and the environment.
This has always been the core message of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition. Many
people in the world, some for the first time, are inadvertently experiencing what
it is like to live with clean air; this benefit does not have to come at the expense
of our security and economic future.
We identified many of the solutions that deliver economic and social objectives while
simultaneously protecting our air and climate. These include investing in:
development, deployment, and integration of clean renewable energy instead of fossil
fuels, ensuring equitable and affordable access for all;
measures which reduce short-lived climate pollutants such as addressing emissions
from the burning or collection of municipal solid waste; these measures are often
low/no-cost, and quickly achieve multiple near-term economic, public health, and social
policies and regulations which improve indoor air quality by incentivizing energy
access and energy efficiency of buildings and appliances;
preserving our forests and other natural sinks, as well as in expanding them;
sustainable food systems, reduced food waste, and the promotion of healthy diets;
a more local, circular, and low-carbon economy incentivising safe reuse, remanufacturing,
and recycling of products;
more resource efficient, sustainable, and resilient supply chains;
sustainable transport systems including encouraging active travel, work from home,
and implementing policies to reduce daily commuting and reducing business travel;
invest in knowledge institutions, especially in the Global South, to strengthen their
capability to produce high quality and context relevant analyses and build the requisite
Right now, policymakers and leaders are looking for clear guidance on how to build
back quickly from this pandemic and create resilient conditions in our communities
and societies to avoid future economic recessions. To act they need concrete examples
and supporting information about the transformations and investments needed to reduce
emissions while stimulating the economy.
We are issuing a call to the global scientific and policy community to come together
and provide the guidance and evidence to, not just build back, but Build Back Better.
What role might air quality and climate policy, including short-lived climate pollutant
policy, play in the recovery plans following the pandemic, including plans to speed
the economic recovery?
What are the similarities and the difference between the pandemic and the risk from
climate impacts, including the importance of being prepared for the risk and taking
precautionary measures in advance of impacts; the nonlinear nature of both risks;
and the potentially catastrophic consequences for society, including our social, civic,
and economic systems?
What can we learn from the communication of the respective risks of the pandemic,
climate, and air quality impacts?
The virus requires physical distancing and a radical alteration of our everyday social,
economic, and political lives, but it is also showing us how closely interconnected
we are. We can now see, both as individuals and as a society, how capable we are of
making major changes, if the safety and sustainability of our society is at stake.
What can we learn from the response to covid-19, and previous shocks, which we can
use for action on climate and air pollution?