In April, leaders from around the globe gathered for a virtual climate summit. During the highly anticipated event, figures from both sides of the aisle painted a bleak future without drastic and immediate action. Some Americans sighed with relief at the perceived sense of urgency. Others rolled their eyes at what seemed to be an overblown reaction.
No matter where our views fall, we all should recognize the economic need to reduce air pollution and, with it, harmful ground-level ozone in our communities.
Last spring, the world largely shut down in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. Almost immediately, scientists noticed significant improvements in air quality. Many credited the mandatory stay-at-home measures for the measurable drops in pollutants, such as nitrogen dioxide.
But the impact didn’t last. Restrictions soon loosened, and we went back to our old ways. Vehicle traffic surged, and so too did air pollution. Recently, European Space Agency satellite imagery confirmed, “levels of nitrogen dioxide, an air pollutant caused most commonly by emissions from cars, are returning to their previous levels.”
Despite this setback, numerous studies continue to show collective action—in this case, using alternate modes of transportation—did, in fact, help clean the air. As a UCLA researcher noted, “less driving does make a difference.” So, is it time to consider ditching the car keys again?
According to Stanford University, “air pollution negatively impacts the U.S. economy, costing it roughly five percent of its yearly gross domestic product in damages,” with the highest costs from “early deaths, attributable to exposure to fine particulate matter.” Statista highlights how high concentrations of pollutants harm Americans’ ability to work, participate in the labor force or attend school due to higher rates of asthma, diabetes, and chronic respiratory illnesses. A Harvard University study went even further, showing how air pollution can worsen the effects of COVID-19, particularly among those with long-term exposure.
We cannot afford to shutter the global economy again. But we can work together to make smarter daily choices, including when it comes to selecting our modes of transportation.
Metroplan hosts Ozone Action Days, its annual public awareness campaign, from May-September to encourage residents to take voluntary actions that will help reduce harmful ground-level ozone. We hope the region will join us in taking up this cause once again. Because, as data shows, together we can cut emissions, improve air quality and build a stronger economic future.
Editor’s note: Tab Townsell is the executive director of Metroplan, an association of local governments that serves as a regional voice on issues affecting Central Arkansas, develops transportation plans required by federal law and convenes stakeholders to deal with common environmental issues for its members in Pulaski, Faulkner, Saline, Lonoke and Grant counties. The views expressed are those of the author.