By Joel Levin & Philip B. Jones
Good news is as precious as gold these days, so with Earth Day just behind us, we want to report this positive piece of information: air pollution levels have plummeted all over the world — including Chicago — since COVID-19 became a worldwide issue.
The examples are everywhere:
• Los Angeles’ air is the cleanest it’s been since 1995;
• Beijing’s typically smog-filled skies are abnormally clear; and
• Residents of India can see the Himalayan mountains for the first time in decades.
These changes are important for several reasons, but most critically because there’s a direct relationship between air pollution and COVID-19. To put it bluntly, you are more likely to die from coronavirus if you live in a highly polluted area, according to research by the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Noting there is a “large overlap” between dirty air and COVID-19 deaths, the report states: “The results of this paper suggest that long-term exposure to air pollution increases vulnerability to experiencing the most severe COVID-19 outcomes.”
That’s tragically relevant to us here in Chicagoland, which ranks third-worst among major metropolitan areas when it comes to levels of childhood asthma from air pollution. The asthma rate among high-school kids in Chicago is estimated to be 22.3%, according to the Respiratory Health Association — much higher than the national average of about 9%. The tailpipe pollution from light-duty passenger vehicles, and especially diesel trucks and buses, contribute heavily to these respiratory diseases.
Now, COVID-19’s impact on our everyday routines has created cleaner skies throughout Chicagoland. But it shouldn’t take a pandemic-induced economic slowdown to improve the air in our cities. When our economy returns to a higher level of activity, we need to think carefully about what we want our “new normal” to look like.
This crisis gives us an opportunity to change things, to truly alter our way of lives. Why should we resign ourselves to just going back to the way things were, environmentally? Why should we accept what was already a life-threatening situation as a given — that Chicago’s skies are dangerous to many of us? Why endanger the health of our kids and grandchildren through such unhealthy levels of air pollution?
We now have the chance to stand up and demand a change from the status quo of polluted air and high levels of smog. This is a chance to capitalize on positive momentum and make some dramatic, life-saving adjustments to improve our public health and our environment.
One of the best ways to do that is to increase our usage of electric vehicles (EVs). Illinois elected officials have shown a strong interest in accelerating efforts like transportation electrification, which would electrify much of the state’s transportation system. Going electric has clear environmental benefits by removing tons of poisonous pollution from the air. Beyond that, it will also help Illinois save money and create jobs in the innovation and technology sectors.
As we focus on kickstarting Illinois’ economy again, policymakers are looking to make Illinois a leader in an industry that’s growing by 25% every year. All over the country, many organizations — governments, private companies, and utilities — are investing billions of dollars in zero-carbon generation and technologies to accelerate electric vehicles and the necessary charging stations to provide the fuel of the future, which will be kilowatt-hours.
We welcome these changes, which are long overdue. This global pandemic has been a crisis for millions of people. This is our chance to bring something good from it, going forward. Let’s take this step together.
Joel Levin is the Executive Director for Plug In America and a nationally recognized advocate for EVs. Philip B. Jones is the Executive Director of Alliance For Transportation Electrification and former President of National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. Both organizations are founding Members of Illinois Clean Air Now (ICAN).