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Earth Day 2020: The Role of Air Pollution in the COVID-19 Pandemic

It seems like time has all but stopped while we have been laser-focused on the global health crisis facing our World. And yet, the planet has, in fact, kept on revolving around the sun in its usual way, bringing us inevitably to April 22, Earth Day.

Long before any of us had heard of COVID-19, the Earth Day theme for 2020 was chosen: Climate Action. If anyone ever doubted that humans have a direct effect on climate, this period of forced inactivity has made it very clear.  As clear as the fresher air many of us are now breathing.

The Smoke Clears

Internationally, satellite data showing a marked decrease in levels of nitrogen dioxide in the skies above quarantined cities. Nitrogen dioxide is produced by motor vehicle traffic and industry, both of which are much reduced while people are sheltering in place. While N20 is not itself a greenhouse gas, its absence is indicative of a decrease in air pollution in general.

Pollution levels in China in 2019, left, and 2020. Photograph: Guardian Visuals / ESA satellite data

While no one wants to see people housebound or the industrial activity that drives worldwide economies shuttered, we’ve now been given a real-time demonstration of how tighter pollution controls for cars, trucks, power plants, and factories could make a huge difference to our air quality. The advent of the current pandemic also makes it evident that this isn’t a problem for future generations. Right now, human lives are on the line.

The Social Injustice of Air Pollution

Reducing air pollution has never been just about mitigating climate change, preserving natural spaces, or protecting endangered species, although these are all, of course, absolutely critical. It’s also an issue of health, social justice, and, ultimately, human survival. Already, a preliminary study from the Harvard University School of Public Health has shown that Americans living in places with high particulate air pollution are more likely become severely ill with COVID-19, presumably because preexisting lung damage makes this respiratory virus much more likely to be fatal.

Air pollution tends to be worse in economically disadvantaged areas, where people are forced to live close to industrial activity. The poorest populations of countries with less regulation on air pollution emissions are now especially vulnerable to severe illness and death. Due to the relaxation of environmental standards, this includes people in the world’s richest nations.

Earth Day Matters 

So while Earth Day may seem tangential to our current crisis, it’s actually enmeshed in it. Saving the Earth means saving the people of the Earth in more ways than we once imagined; add disease to the list of urgent threats to our existence.

Earth Day protests, events, and gatherings are not possible out on the streets this year, but Climate Change is not cancelled. Please look out for online gatherings and action – Earth Day Live 2020 is a great place to start with many prominent climate activists contributing to this event.  It won’t be until the people of this planet join together and show that we value all lives equally. That’s what environmentalism looks like now.

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