With Covid subsiding, air pollution is back
If the Covid pandemic and its subsequent lockdown proved anything, it drummed up some handy and quick data on air pollution. Bottom line: fewer cars, fewer emissions, better air quality. But how to keep that up now that the pandemic is subsiding?
Logan Mitchell, a professor and researcher in the University of Utah’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences who also works as the climate scientist and energy analyst at the nonprofit Utah Clean Energy, wrote in a report for the university that air quality improvement in 2020 was stark and immediate.
“What really surprised me was how fast we could see a difference. And this is something that we talk about, and I teach about. Air quality has a really fast response time,” Mitchell says. “As soon as you reduce emissions, you’re going to see improvements in air quality. And it was just really striking to me to actually see that happen in the real world.”
Mitchell says findings like this support the movement to electric cars, with the University of Utah’s recommendation of achieving at least 50 percent electric in America’s fleet. “I think it is not only possible, it’s inevitable. It’s just a question of how long it’s going to take for us to get there,” he says. “We’re still in a process of technological innovation. And I think because of the focus and the real immediate importance to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, that pace of innovation is accelerating very, very quickly. I think it’s going to be in the 2030s.”
With his policy hat on at Clean Air Utah, Mitchell is working on what it would take to make that happen. The recently-passed Inflation Reduction Act holds some of the keys, he says. It provides an incentive structure for new electric vehicles, and automakers are trying to shift gears to take advantage of those incentives. But a big part of the incentive structure is the critical minerals needed in batteries, something the US still relies too heavily on China for. That problem is shifting and Utah is playing a part, Mitchell says.
Electric vehicles are much more efficient than combustion vehicles, despite the power grid still being predominantly coal, Mitchell says. “Electric vehicles still end up being emissions competitive or even better than an internal combustion vehicle. So even today, electric vehicles benefit from an admissions perspective. They have other benefits in that they’re not emitting pollutants locally. So there’s an air pollution benefit, in addition to the overall energy efficiency,” he says. “And, the grid is changing the energy mix and rapidly deploying renewable energy, so over the lifetime of an electric vehicle, it’s getting greener and greener.”
Mitchell is pleased that his report helped to inform policy. Utah Sen. Daniel McCay (Republican) sponsored Senate Bill 15, establishing an official program that whenever air quality gets into the yellow or red zone, all non-essential state employees need to work from home.
The Chevron Salt Lake Refinery followed suit. It announced the launch of its Air Action Telework Initiative in 2021 to encourage telework and reduce commute-related emissions along the Wasatch Front, according to Kristina Brown, spokesperson for the refinery. On days when local air quality is likely to exceed federal health standards for ozone or PM 2.5, the Chevron Refinery encourages employees who can work remotely to do so. “Our initiative follows the state’s leadership on air quality solutions and is one of the ways the Chevron Refinery is working to support cleaner air,” she says. “We were early adopters of this new flexible work model and collaborated with nonprofit Envision Utah on a webinar in April 2021 to talk tactics of our model and provide education to employers that may be interested.”
Mitchell is pleased that his report helped to inform policy. Utah Sen. Daniel McCay sponsored Senate Bill 15, establishing an official program that whenever air quality gets into the yellow or red zone, all non-essential state employees need to work from home.
Because of innovation and the Clean Air Act, Mitchell says, there has been a long-term trend in improving air quality and improving and reducing air pollutant emissions. “Greenhouse gas emissions have actually been going up because we’re getting heavier vehicles, but at the same time, we’ve been developing better catalytic converters and improving this fuel quality such that the number of air pollutants that are emitted from that fuel actually has gone down,” he says. “So there’s a long-term decrease in air pollutant emissions, even as the size of the fleet has been increasing.”
Jamie Mackey, freeway operations manager at the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT), says UDOT has a series of roughly 800 traffic counters spread around the state. These counters are highly concentrated on I-15 and collect vehicles’ volume and speed by lane. UDOT produces data for average traffic on a roadway segment on a typical day. Data along I-15 shows traffic on an average day ranges from 100,000 to 200,000 for most of I-15 in the urbanized area, combining it from both directions.
Mackey’s group set up a dashboard at the beginning of the pandemic to compare traffic to 2019 and continued that dashboard until the beginning of 2021. By that time, traffic was fairly comparable to pre-Covid, she says.
“There was a month or two during the initial stages of the pandemic where people were more likely to stay home, and that’s where you saw it dip to almost half of the traffic and then kind of built up again over the next few months,” says John Gleason, UDOT public relations director.
Generally, the morning commute was much slower to recover than the evening commute. The evening commute exceeded 2019 volumes in early 2021, Mackey says. The a.m. commute took until the latter part of that year before it felt typical again.
“The tricky thing about traffic volumes is that, when you have stop-and-go traffic, there are always more people who wanted to travel at that time but chose not to because they didn’t want to get in that mess,” Mackey says. “We call that latent demand. And so, who are these people returning? Those are the questions I can’t answer.”
Mackey calls this “a really complicated issue” because it’s mixed with some capacity improvements in the middle of I-15 that went live right after the pandemic. The northbound lanes that UDOT added at 90th South have really improved that section of the freeway and the overall capacity of that area is much higher, Mackey says.
John Barrand, division director of the Utah Department of Human Resource Management, says Utah is the biggest employer in the state with 21,000+ employees. The state was working on a remote work plan prior to the pandemic, and 16 percent of employees are now eligible for full-time remote work.
During the pandemic, more than 8,500 employees regularly worked remotely, saving 2.79 tons of tailpipe emissions per month between April 2020 and May 2021, Barrand says. Those savings are equal to 39 tons of pollution that didn’t happen.