The dramatic declines in vehicle travel caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have created a unique glimpse into what would happen to pollution levels if we took half of our cars off the road. Anecdotal claims of cleaner air in many U.S. cities have been pervasive over the past several months, fueling conversations about the future of electric vehicles. However, the real data shows that our air is already so clean that reducing vehicle travel 40-50% did not produce a measurable improvement in air pollution levels.
Nationwide, passenger vehicle travel was down more than 40% in late March and early April 2020 compared to the end of February and remained down over 30% through the end of April. Given this considerable decrease in driving and the widespread assumption that air pollution is still a significant problem in the U.S., many people — including environmental journalists, scientists, and regulators — both predicted and falsely claimed after the fact that air quality would improve dramatically. The latest data from the EPA offers a compelling rebuke to this narrative.
For instance, during the peak of the closures in Los Angeles, ozone levels were only down 7% compared to the previous five-year average and up slightly from the 2019 average over the same weeks. When looking at the data over a span of several months, these changes are well within the range of natural variation due to weather and other uncontrollable factors. In fact, a consistent theme that shows up when dissecting U.S. air quality data is that pollution levels are so low that they are difficult to distinguish from natural levels.
The graph below compares 2020 ozone emissions in Los Angeles compared with the previous five years:
These news articles also universally fail to mention how much safer and cleaner the air is in U.S. cities compared to the vast majority of the world. The graph below shows fine particulate matter concentrations in several major cities around the world during the last three weeks in March from 2016 to 2020. Cities in Asia, which have five to 10 times the pollution levels of U.S. cities, saw dramatic declines during their lockdowns, while there were no significant changes in New York and Los Angeles
News articles that vilify the use of fossil fuels and ignore the data about how clean America’s air is foster misleading, destructive environmental alarmism and do not promote the prosperity and well-being of Americans. Fossil fuels have given Americans the wealth and technology to maintain some of the cleanest air and water in the world and improved lives around the world.
The data is clear: U.S. air quality did not measurably improve during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Average pollution levels in most U.S. cities in March and April 2020 were virtually indistinguishable from their previous five-year averages, and the observed fluctuations in air quality are primarily due to natural causes, such as weather. Imported pollution from Asia also has a strong influence on pollution levels in Western U.S. cities.
If improving air quality is the ultimate goal, the U.S. should not ban fossil fuels. Instead, we should continue to support responsible energy production, implement policies that make energy more affordable and reliable, and promote the wealth that enables us to keep our air and water clean. We should also hold other countries to our air quality standards so that we stop exporting jobs and importing pollution.