Pollution reductions during lockdowns can teach us how to better rebuild a sustainable economy
Jean-Philippe Bonardi, Quentin Gallea, Dimitrija Kalanoski, Rafael Lalive, Raahil Madhok, Frederik Noac, Dominic Rohner, Tommaso Sonno June 21, 2021
The COVID-19 wreckage has greatly exceeded anyone’s imagination. Since the first reported outbreak in Wuhan, China, in early 2020, the death toll from the pandemic has exceeded 3.7 million, leaving dire economic and social consequences in its wake. At its peak, considerable attention was paid to controlling the spread of the virus (von Bismarck-Osten et al. 2021, Blanchard-Rohner et al. 2021, Bonardi et al. 2020a, 2020b) and creating a policy mix that could mitigate the threats of recessions and increased poverty (Baldwin and di Mauro 2020a, 2020b, Bonardi et al. 2020b).
Today, as immunization sheds light at the end of the tunnel, questions about managing a post-pandemic world have become more pressing. Among these questions, of course, is the number one problem of our generation: how to tackle climate change and build a more sustainable economy. As COVID-19 proliferated and lockdowns were imposed, the global ‘anthropause’ provided exactly the kind of natural experience to better understand the environmental cost of mobility and globalization, and how to minimize that cost to the world. to come up.
A series of studies have shown drops in pollution during the first months of the pandemic in parts of the globe (Venter et al. 2020, He et al. 2020, Forster et al. 2020). In contrast, our recent article (Bonardi et al. 2021) provides new information on the economy-environment relationship by estimating the global environmental consequences of medium-term foreclosure measures in 162 countries. This longer-term evidence provides valuable information on the extent of air quality improvements that are achievable, which can be a key informational input for the design of sustainable policies that can put the environment back on track. rails.
Based on a particularly rich sample, we find that national and international containment measures result overall in a 35 to 45% reduction in pollution in the medium term, exceeding existing short-term estimates. Interestingly, our documented improvements in air quality persist over the medium term, even as the blockages are lifted. The study shows that some country trajectories are much more attractive than others, with fewer COVID-19 victims, less economic downturn and greater pollution reductions.
We use fine particle pollution (PM2.5) as an indicator of air quality because it is the pollutant with the most serious consequences on health. PM2.5 levels are also used by the World Health Organization as a primary indicator of people’s exposure to pollution. Although pollution monitoring networks exist, they provide sparse geographic coverage. Instead, we take advantage of NASA’s daily high-resolution satellite recoveries (Gelaro et al. 2017). This unique data provides comprehensive coverage, roughly equivalent to setting up a monitor every 50 km across the planet.
Figure 1 Global distribution of air quality changes induced by the pandemic
Remarks: Cell values describe the difference in mean log-PM2.5 before and after the first internal NPI measurement compared to the same pre-post difference in 2019. The “before” period extends through November of l previous year until the lock-in date. The “after” period runs until August 31st. From Bonardi et al. (2021).
Rebuilding a sustainable economy
Our second result opens up the plan to rebuild better: we find uneven impacts on air quality across the world (Figure 1), even among countries with similar lockdown stringency. To understand why, note that pollution is a negative externality of common economic activities such as industry, transportation, heating, and cooking. While the cascade of blockages has sharply reduced mobility and industrial activity, the net impact on energy consumption is more complex, as working from home has become the new normal. In other words, when restrictions were placed on certain economic activities (transport and industry), people switched to others (household energy). In this example, contrary to popular belief, reductions in economic activity could be harmful to the environment in countries where household energy is the greatest source of pollution. Policies to combat climate change must take into account these various responses to regulations.
Our study carefully uncovers these heterogeneities in order to inform treatable environmental policy prescriptions. Figure 1 shows that most of the Americas, Europe, Southern Africa, East Asia and the Pacific saw air quality improve (purple) during the lockdown, but parts of South America and Asia (orange) have seen their air quality deteriorate. The existence of heterogeneous sources of air pollution across regions (Lelieveld et al. 2015) largely explains the variation and reveals the complexities of global pollution control.
Home energy use, agriculture and power generation are among the major sources of pollution in urban areas of Asia, South America and Africa, unlike developed countries in South America. North and Europe, where most emissions come from transport and industry. Figure 2 shows that areas that experienced improvements in air quality had industry or transport as the main source of pollution, while areas with no change or deterioration in air quality were often the most common. same regions where the dominant sources of pollution include agriculture, residential biomass combustion or electricity generation, including Greece, Japan and Brazil.
Figure 2 Changes in air quality in urban areas, changes in GDP, sources of air pollution and COVID-19 mortality
Remarks: GDP and PM2.5 are measured as the difference in average values between the first and second quarters of 2020 compared to the same difference in 2019. COVID-19-related deaths are the sum of the deaths in the second quarter of 2020. Sources of air pollution is the source of the greatest impact of PM2.5 on mortality in 2010. Data on GDP comes from the OECD, while data on deaths related to Covid comes from of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (Bonardi et al. 2021).
Development economics literature shows that the composition of economies changes during the process of structural change, often from agriculture to industry, to service-dominated economies (Herrendorf et al. 2014). Thus, environmental quality and economic progress can improve in tandem when the move towards cleaner production counteracts the environmental damage caused by increased production. Our results suggest that such complexities may also exist in the short term, when people respond to COVID-19 restrictions by switching to other more polluting activities that are less affected by lockdowns, such as increased pollution from heating.
Despite significant improvements in air quality around the world, the price of COVID-19 blockages was extremely high. Looking ahead, our results suggest adopting a more nuanced political approach than “blanket” restrictions on economic activity. Better rebuilding a sustainable economy requires designing market-based instruments that reward a shift towards cleaner production and consumption of goods and services. Such an approach not only puts a price on pollution through taxes or quotas, like carbon taxes or the recent European tax on plastics, but will also encourage innovation and investment in green technologies.
In conclusion, there is a popular notion that the environment bounces back during COVID-19 while humanity stays at home. Our study shows that the reality is much more complex. As restrictions are lifted and vaccination campaigns sweep the world, we can choose to “get back to normal”, or learn from the experience of the pandemic and “better rebuild” a sustainable economy. Our findings can inform the design of smart environmental policies in tandem with general lessons (Metcalf and Stock 2020) from the experience of carbon taxes (Andersson 2019) and cap-and-trade systems that reduce carbon emissions. greenhouse gas. Past pandemics have forced humans to reimagine their future. This one is no different.
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