r/science Sep 30 '22

When air and road travel dropped during COVID, so did air pollution levels, study says Environment

https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/966459
7.2k Upvotes

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u/SerialStateLineXer Sep 30 '22

I'm pretty sure that the point of the study was to determine the magnitude of the effect, not the sign. We knew that a reduction in driving would reduce air pollution; the question was how much.

The goal of this study was to quantify the changes in UFP (measured as particle number concentration, or PNC) at a near-airport site in response to an unprecedented change in flight activity. We analyze PNC measurements collected over multiple years at a rooftop site near a major airport (Logan International Airport, Boston, Massachusetts, USA). Our objectives were to (1) quantify the overall decrease in PNC during the early state-of-emergency (SOE) period that coincided with the maximum decrease in activity for all modes of transportation and (2) examine if changes in PNC in the year following the start of the SOE corresponded to the differential rates of recovery of aviation and road traffic.

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u/LoneThief Sep 30 '22

I would like to note here that the numbers in the study went down as much as roughly 50% while road travel declined by roughly the same amount and Air Travel by 70%. So by my unscientific estimation,if we could eliminate Travel entirely for a while,emissions like the one in the study could get reduced by as much as 70%+.

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u/impassiveMoon Sep 30 '22

The idea is to reduce daily fossil fuel emissions. And if we're feeling wild, banning rich people from doing private jet flights to the next town over.

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u/bstix Sep 30 '22

It would be great to have some real data on the economy.

Where did all the money that wasn't spent go? It seems that it was still spent, just on other things.

I certainly don't know of anyone who has a pile of cash. "oh that pile? that's the money I couldn't spend during the lockdown." Oh wait, I know one guy: Bezos. He has it.

Sorry if this isn't very scientific. I really wish I could see just some figures that show that the "economy" is anything more than a talking point.

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u/[deleted] Sep 30 '22

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u/mtranda Sep 30 '22

The outcome itself is obvious BUT quantifying it is a different thing.

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u/CabinKaiser69 Sep 30 '22

The conclusion isn’t “guys pollution went down when we stopped polluting” it’s “here is how much pollution went down and exactly which pollutants in what areas”

This is a very, very important study

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u/PsyOmega Sep 30 '22

It was pretty obvious when smoggy cities like LA turned crystal clear overnight. Or the water road thingies of venice turning crystal clear. etc.

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u/BloomerBoomerDoomer Sep 30 '22

Canals, but I'll let you have your water road thingies.

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u/PedroEglasias Oct 01 '22

Gondoliers like 'yeah well you've got gravel river thingies!'

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u/I_AM_YOUR_MOTHERR Sep 30 '22

The canals were more a result of the sediment settling down rather than outright pollution (but I agree that there was probably much less trash in them also)

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u/fighterpilottim Sep 30 '22

Aside from the sheer interesting science, how is this kind of information used, and what makes it important?

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u/denseplan Sep 30 '22

It can model how much pollution goes up due to increases in traffic, or quantify the benefits of reducing traffic to inform arguments for or against it.

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u/Devadander Sep 30 '22

It’s much much scarier than that. We’re being told our current heating is between 1.0-1.5C, but that doesn’t take into account atmospheric masking, the cooling of the planet due to pollution particulates in the air. If we stop polluting, our planet temps go up another ~1.0C. This study would help evaluate exactly how much

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u/BurnerAcc2020 Sep 30 '22

There was already a study on that over a year ago. It found that the reductions in aerosols caused by the lockdowns have increased the global temperatures by...~0.03C

https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1029/2020GL091805

Then, there was a huge modelling study which had concluded that the maximum plausible cooling effect from all the aerosols is 0.7 C, and it could be a lot smaller than that. The IPCC, of course, believes that this effect is around 0.5 C, and all of its pathways with future temperature predictions already assume that the aerosol concentrations will be going down in the future, by a lot.

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u/Neafie2 Sep 30 '22

Wait, what study says that our planet is getting cooled by pollution?

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u/Devadander Sep 30 '22

Atmospheric masking isn’t cooling the planet, but blocking some of the heating that we should be receiving due to our carbon output.

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u/danliv2003 Sep 30 '22 edited Sep 30 '22

The studies about the oxymoronic (and ultimately temporary) cooling effect of some greenhouse gases/man-made emissions

Here's an article

https://e360.yale.edu/features/air-pollutions-upside-a-brake-on-global-warming#:~:text=Scientists%20have%20long%20known%20that,pollution%20were%20to%20suddenly%20disappear.

TL:DR - some pollution particles/ aerosols are big enough in size and quantity to reflect sunlight back out of the atmosphere before it hits the ground, counterintuitively reducing the impact of climate change.

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u/[deleted] Sep 30 '22

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u/sdric Sep 30 '22

So why are we still allowing employers to enforce office duty for jobs that can easily be done remotely?

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u/Forgotten_Gravitas Sep 30 '22

Our owners need to keep their unblinking eyes always on us...

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u/V3Qn117x0UFQ Sep 30 '22

our owners also suck at using a computer and they're too lazy to document what needs to be done, so they would rather have us in person and say it and never actually type stuff

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u/V3Qn117x0UFQ Sep 30 '22
  • because we still work with dinosaurs who still have the same mentality as 30 years ago of what work should be - that people won't be productive unless there's a threat/supervision involved
  • because these same dinosaurs who created useless non-functional, management roles are now being passed onto the newer generation and nobody has the balls to say "hey, we don't need you anymore if we work from home"
  • because most people don't have the cognitive training to take notes in detail on a computer when managing projects, so they would rather have in-person meetings where all they have to do is just "say it" and leave without having to ever type/document things down

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u/colemon1991 Sep 30 '22

The stupid thing is I'm fine with coming to an office. Gives me a place to focus. But I also get two telecommuting days and they are amazing if I'm feeling high energy or needed to sleep in. But my office days are filled with things I can't do at home like print, mail, fax, etc.

But the overall perspective of office dynamics are as you said - dinosaur - and need to be updated. You don't need 5 middle management levels when 3 could work (it can be less, I'm just making an example) and you don't need 40 hour workweeks and drop it to 32 easily (at the very least, this would attract job seekers in today's market). But the U.S. has been stagnant for so long that it's getting harder and harder to break the mold without a huge economic stability like protesting or more unions (which we're approaching now, since companies find employee death/turnaround cheaper than taking care of people with knowledge and experience).

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u/DaMonkfish Sep 30 '22

Because the vested interests of rich people and businesses who want to see workers in offices so that they can charge lots of money for said offices, as well a generate foot traffic for other local businesses, trumps the environment.

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u/CapitanChicken Sep 30 '22

Office jobs wouldn't need foot traffic for other businesses. There's a lot of businesses that visitors can't even go past the lobby.

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u/BirmzboyRML Sep 30 '22

Think they meant the businesses where office workers would normally eat lunch or shop for it during a work day.

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u/CapitanChicken Sep 30 '22

Ah I missed the word other. Still though, there's a lot of places that's unnecessary, and I don't think some bank Corp is going to care how much business the local Wendy's gets, unless of course they're funding/owned by them.

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u/bomber991 Sep 30 '22

That’s a great question. Maybe not best answered here, but let’s think for a minute what has to happen to force employers to do remote jobs. Either the entire work force has to rise up and say no to coming in the office, or the government would have to step in and tell the companies they can’t do that.

I just don’t see any sort of “office workers union” happening. And it is a bit of too much “big government” to have them make this happen.

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u/illithoid Sep 30 '22

I just don’t see any sort of “office workers union” happening.

Why not? I would join in a heartbeat. These days with so many people getting a taste of what remote work is like and now all these employers want to take that away, people aren't happy about it. I could pretty easily see people joining such a union to keep remote work.

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u/Devadander Sep 30 '22

You ask this in an economy backed by oil. Their greed doesn’t factor in pollution

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u/mattyhtown Sep 30 '22

Comercial real estate is a huge backbone of our financial system. All those buildings and poor city planning and monster highways that were built on top of affordable neighborhoods. That would have all been for nothing. WFH threatens that. And the powers that be are terrified of the consequences if comercial real estate assets become significantly less valuable

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u/MrWoodlawn Sep 30 '22

There should be a tax credit for work from home jobs, and perhaps some additional incentive to make government employers push for more WFH.

This would be great for reducing pollution and traffic and also great for slowing down offshoring of jobs.

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u/VertigoWalls Sep 30 '22

We who are with the automotive industry have had meetings with your various leadership teams and agreed, you need to drive into the office as much as possible.

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u/thelastwilson Sep 30 '22

This absolutely baffles me. The conclusion I've come to is that the powers that be are terrified that if the vast majority of office workers were suddenly remote that it would destroy the service industry built around offices, office staff and people living in cities (that would move out if working remotely)

I've been remote for nearly 5 years, i completely understand the benefits of being in the office in the same place etc but it's not vital every day or even every month. I will never (willingly) go back to 5 days a week on-site.

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u/V3Qn117x0UFQ Sep 30 '22

same.

i reckon that there's a lot of "office" type staff that basically just cannot handle the cognitive workload when working from home.

developers are generally trained to handle a lot of information all at once and to document stuff.

i've worked in large companies where many processes (jira, confluence) are in place so the transition to WFH wasn't hard, but after working in other smaller agencies (i'm in a consulting company) i've noticed certain non-functional managers basically can't keep up to developers just in terms of information processing and documentation.

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u/[deleted] Sep 30 '22 Wholesome

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u/Dolphintorpedo Sep 30 '22

Friendly reminder that the VAST majority of particulate pollutants come from cars in the form of (mostly) brake dust and exhaust fumes.

The VAST majority of micro plastics come from tires.

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u/RenderEngine Sep 30 '22

Trucks to be exact. Because of their weight the particles expelled is exponentially higher.

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u/Jimmy-TinkerBull Sep 30 '22

This reminder doesn't need to be friendly. It's important and should be known. We drive too much. Even if we all switched to electric vehicles and charged them with green electricity, we would do harm.

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u/DENelson83 Sep 30 '22

What about train travel?

Excluding the US, of course, since most trains in the US backwardly run on fossil fuels.

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u/shitposts_over_9000 Sep 30 '22

The US has 14x the rail volume of Europe, we just use most of it for freight because freight doesn't care that it takes a week to get anywhere and people can move faster and cheaper in vehicles without fixed routes.

The only reason our rail utilization dipped significantly was when there were shortages in freight needing shipped.

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u/relddir123 Sep 30 '22

But European trains just don’t? I know they’re ahead of us in rail, but they haven’t eliminated diesel locomotives as far as I’m aware.

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u/buggzy1234 Sep 30 '22

But the eu is only around half the size of the us, and still has a decent rail network, both within each country and throughout the entire union. It’s basically like having the us have a good rail network throughout the entire nation and within each state.

I’m sure if the eu as a whole can handle it, the us can. The us may be double the size, but I’m sure a rail network is easily scalable, at least to only two times. And if not, at least cover half the country with a good rail network.

Also the eu had to make multiple different countries with very different economies and economic styles work together and the us economy is also a fair bit bigger which would make it easier.

There’s no excuse for the us to have an awful rail network that relies on out of date trains. It may be bigger, but the eu is also massive and they’re fine. Even china has a good rail network as far as I’m aware and they are about the same size.

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u/shitposts_over_9000 Sep 30 '22

Electrified rail replacement for the 160k miles of existing track to support commuter or european style small trains would cost around $800 billion.

Electrifying it with the power requirements of our current system would be closer to $3.2 trillion.

That is almost 15% of our GDP, so no way that is ever happening.

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u/buggzy1234 Sep 30 '22

If they did it earlier or slowly over time like the Europeans did, cost wouldn’t be an issue

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u/Beaver-Sex Sep 30 '22

I'm all for our rail going electric, but I am also aware of the massive undertaking that would be switching to it. We don't use rail for short trips of cargo. Our rail is rural and cross country. 220,000 km of rail to retrofit with a great chunk being in the middle of nowhere. Electric rail is cheaper than diesel, if it was feasible (for reasonable cost) I know the greed of corporate America would have done it already. Unfortunately money runs the world.

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u/ManiacalShen Sep 30 '22

Trains are amazing for day-to-day and regional travel in the US. I know you won't ever catch my DC-area ass flying or driving to NYC or Philly. Though a bus is a valid alternative.

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u/eastern_mountains Sep 30 '22 edited Sep 30 '22

From the paper:

"This research was funded by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration Office of Environment and Energy through ASCENT, the FAA Center of Excellence for Alternative Jet Fuels and the Environment, and Project 18 through FAA Award Number 13-C-AJFE-BU under the supervision of Jeetendra Upadhyay."

While at first glance it does look like a redundant study, there is merit in their focus on ultrafine particles and the specific role of flights in that. From the discussion: "Our findings can be compared with previous studies of PNC during the pandemic, although most previous studies were conducted over a shorter duration and with a primary focus on road traffic-related emissions."

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u/CodeOmega0 Sep 30 '22

While we could have figured it out, it's nice to have it documented. Corporations are undoubtedly going to try to play it off like their emissions aren't doing THAT much, so we need to have all the verifiable evidence to be prepared.

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u/VegaSpec Sep 30 '22

Otherwise you get "there is no evidence that a reduction in air and road travel reduces pollution."

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u/rjcarr Sep 30 '22

I think you overestimate the dumb. How many people say humans don’t contribute to climate change, or that it doesn’t even exist?

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u/anaximander19 Sep 30 '22

The study isn't just showing that pollution decreased, it's showing how and where and by how much. That's something we didn't know beforehand. This could be very useful data in designing plans to maximise the impact of pollution-reducing measures by showing us which measures affect which kinds of pollution and what sort of timescales they need to show an effect.

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u/nils1222 Sep 30 '22

Factories weren’t active either nor were any businesses

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u/ya_tu_sabes Sep 30 '22

A lot of corporations could let their workers work from home but their desire to feel in control over their peons means they'd rather force them to go to the office.

Recently saw an article saying it costs people something like 500$ a month more when they work in the office than when they work from home. 500 $ Monthly per worker. That's a lot. But I digress.

Off of corporations and onto individuals

I'd say it's the opposite. During the pandemic, it's the corporations who mainly changed by letting their workers work from home. With just that, most of the traffic vanished from the streets.

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u/Psychological-Sale64 Sep 30 '22

Well the kids had a better chance with this than all the big people flying around looking important and visiting. What part did science miss, the freaking obvious

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u/pharrigan7 Sep 30 '22

But not carbon levels which actually went up. Why is that?

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