Air pollution deaths fell by nearly a quarter because of lockdowns: Study

Source: By Abby Smith, Washington Examiner • Posted: Monday, May 11, 2020

Social distancing practices reduced monthly deaths from air pollution exposure by nearly a quarter, new economic research found.

Declines in travel and electricity generation, due to shelter-in-place restrictions imposed by states to slow the spread of the coronavirus, are associated with 363 fewer premature deaths per month from air pollution exposure, according to a working paper circulated Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The working paper from economists at the University of Chicago, the University of North Carolina, Carnegie Mellon, and Dartmouth also estimates a 19% drop in carbon emissions from the transportation and electricity sectors over a month of social distancing.

The research comes as the effect of social distancing practices on the environment has become a political talking point. Republicans opposed to command-and-control air and climate policies said the current landscape underscores how economically damaging those efforts could be.

Democratic lawmakers and environmental advocates, however, said the reduced pollution levels demonstrate the negative effects human activity can have on the environment and give people a glimpse of cleaner air to work toward.

“Our paper demonstrates the degree to which reduced reliance on fossil-fuel based transport and power generation yields public health benefits,” the economists wrote. “In the long run these findings are, perhaps, most interesting when interpreted in the context of post-COVID-19 economy in which remote working and retail delivery are more common.”

However, the researchers added it isn’t clear yet how much consumption habits will change after the virus outbreak.

Most of the avoided premature deaths per month came from reductions in car travel, predominantly from declines in emissions of nitrogen oxides, the economists found. Large cities saw the biggest reductions, with Los Angeles seeing the greatest effect, with 75 fewer deaths per month due to reduced travel. New York City saw the second-largest effect, with 25 fewer deaths from reduced travel.

Large metropolitan areas would also see the biggest economic benefits associated with pollution reductions from social distancing policies.

In total, the economists found a $5.5 billion per month environmental benefit from reduced travel and electricity generation. That assumes a value of a statistical life of $9 million and a $50-per-ton social cost of carbon.

For Los Angeles alone, the benefits would be about $750 million per month, and New York City would accrue about $320 million per month in environmental benefits, according to the research.

Decline in electricity generation had a lesser effect on pollution-related deaths, in part because power consumption didn’t decrease as much as car travel, the economists said. The Southeast and Midwest regions saw the largest reduction in deaths due to power demand changes.

The economists also said the research may underestimate the amount of pollution-related deaths reduced by social distancing practices because “observed mortality rates” from air pollution “are substantially higher during the months covered by this paper.”