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German court cases lead to decline in air pollution

Air pollution has fallen twice as steeply in German cities where air quality litigation has been taken, new analysis has shown. 

Consumer affairs and environmental experts at Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH) have taken litigation in 40 German cities over the consistently dangerous levels of air pollution. 

DUH and ClientEarth took part in legal battles across Germany when the country’s highest court confirmed that diesel restrictions were legally necessary. 

Following this, diesel restrictions were imposed in many major German cities. 

Between 2018 and 2019 alone, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels reduced by an average of 4.2µg/m³ in cities where air quality litigation has been undertaken, whereas, in cities where no action was taken, the average reduction stands at just 2.1µg/m³.

Dorothee Saar, head of transport and air quality at DUH said: ‘People are finally breathing cleaner air – legal action works. We see the potential for NO2 to meet legal limits in every German town by 2021.

‘Politicians and the diesel industry have pushed against us at every stage, just for working towards a reality where people actually get to breathe clean air.

‘In the end, the court rulings and these latest findings say it all: our litigation was justified and successful. We must hold our leaders to account when our health is on the line.’

ClientEarth lawyer Ugo Taddei added: ‘The Covid-19 pandemic makes clear how important it is to clean up the air in accordance with the law, to avoid increasing the burden on those with poor health. But while the improvement in German air quality is encouraging, there is a risk Covid-19 could buck this trend.

‘Amid the pandemic, people are abandoning public transport in favour of private vehicles. This shift worsens pollution and creates more dangerous conditions for cyclists and pedestrians. This is why we need concrete measures in place: we need to get the most polluting vehicles out of the centres of our towns and cities.’

[Source: Air Quality News]

SARS-CoV-2 concentrations and virus-laden aerosol size distributions in outdoor air in north and south of Italy

Abstract

The COVID-19 disease spread at different rates in the different countries and in different regions of the same country, as happened in Italy. Transmission by contact or at close range due to large respiratory droplets is widely accepted, however, the role of airborne transmission due to small respiratory droplets emitted by infected individuals (also asymptomatic) is controversial. It was suggested that outdoor airborne transmission could play a role in determining the differences observed in the spread rate. Concentrations of virus-laden aerosol are still poorly known and contrasting results are reported, especially for outdoor environments. Here we investigated outdoor concentrations and size distributions of virus-laden aerosol simultaneously collected during the pandemic, in May 2020, in northern (Veneto) and southern (Apulia) regions of Italy. The two regions exhibited significantly different prevalence of COVID-19. Genetic material of SARS-CoV-2 (RNA) was determined, using both real time RT-PCR and ddPCR, in air samples collected using PM10 samplers and cascade impactors able to separate 12 size ranges from nanoparticles (diameter D<0.056 μm) up to coarse particles (D>18 μm). Air samples tested negative for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 at both sites, viral particles concentrations were <0.8 copies m-3 in PM10 and <0.4 copies m-3 in each size range investigated. Outdoor air in residential and urban areas was generally not infectious and safe for the public in both northern and southern Italy, with the possible exclusion of very crowded sites. Therefore, it is likely that outdoor airborne transmission does not explain the difference in the spread of COVID-19 observed in the two Italian regions.

[Source: Science Direct, 13 Nov 2020]

Reserve Bank Governor says NZ needs broad transformational change to address risks of climate change

In a speech delivered to the Pacific Ocean Pacific Climate Conference, Mr Orr reflected on the need for transformational change, as well as a collective and urgent response to climate risks.

“There’s a lot to do and we are late in leaving port. Climate change is a risk that requires a collective response. Grounding a response in our collective knowledge, data and expertise will strengthen and compound the effects of our actions.”

Like many other central banks and regulators, the Reserve Bank sees climate change as a key risk to the financial stability underpinning the economy.

The Reserve Bank developed a climate change strategy in 2018 to integrate climate considerations across its work. Significant progress has been made by the Bank since then including:

  • Reporting its own verified carbon footprint;
  • Building capability to understand climate-related risks in the sectors we regulate;
  • Training its supervisors in climate-related risks and integrating climate more intensively into our approach;
  • Raising awareness of climate-related risks to financial stability through external engagements and our biannual Financial Stability Reports; and
  • Leading through experience and collaboration with its involvement in the Network for Greening the Financial System (NGFS), Sustainable Insurance Forum (SIF), and leading the Council of Financial Regulators’ (CoFR) Climate work stream.

Mr Orr welcomed developments towards mandatory climate-related financial disclosures.

[Source: Reserve Bank]

Indian businessman rhymes the case for a universal carbon tax

Nadir Godrej of Godrej Industries entertained an online audience at Climate Week NYC with a poetic appeal to tax carbon and stop burning coal

Nadir Godrej, engineer, businessman and poet, recites verse in favour of carbon taxes and clean energy (Pic: The Climate Group)

Q: What could be the key levers for low-carbon development in the Indian context, are we getting it right?

1st Lever: Universal Carbon Price

It is no longer Climate Change

Within a tolerable range.

A crisis is what it’s about

With fires, floods as well as drought.

Every week a constant blast

Far worse than seen in the past.

If we must, we will adapt

Prevention though would be more apt.

There is a cost to adaptation,

It’s rising fast in every nation

As well as for the world at large.

And this will be a heavy charge.

In fact we should by now conclude

Prevention would be really shrewd.

It actually would cost much less

Indeed avoid a lot of stress.

A uniform carbon tax

Would protect all our backs,

Collected by each Nation state

But universal in its rate!

All GHGs would be fair game.

Every country should charge the same.

The benefit that this would yield

Would be a level playing field.

Competitors just wouldn’t care

Because this system’s very fair.

Just how high should this tax be?

A range of numbers we can see.

But Sixty dollars per metric ton

Would surely get reduction done.

For carbon this could be the rate

For others we would calibrate.

The appropriate rate we would select

Based on the Greenhouse Gas effect.

Based on today’s emissions rate

Quite candidly I should state

It wouldn’t be a trivial sum

But there’s no reason to be glum.

In dollars it would be Two Trillion

It is a lot but not a Zillion!

Compared to global GDP

The percentage is less than three.

Compared to taxes then again

The percentage is less than ten!

Of course some would then take a call

To reduce emissions not pay it all.

But bear in mind it’s not a cost.

For the economy nothing’s lost.

A UBI could be instated.

Some other tax could be abated.

And if this is indeed just so

The economy would still grow.

Don’t you think it’s very nice,

That there is no real price

Since very little would be lost

As adaptation has a higher cost?

2nd Lever: Business action

But in the absence of a carbon tax

There is no reason to be lax.

Though business doesn’t find it nice

We already have a carbon price

Or rather we seem to have a range

That is ad hoc and very strange.

On coal we have a largish cess.

Our electricity rates are a mess.

Our motor fuels bear excise

With rates that regularly rise.

Climate change is now a curse

It steadily is getting worse.

Technology can save the day.

So far it has turned out that way.

As technology takes a leap

Green energy gets very cheap.

Keen observers quickly saw

That Solar also tracks Moore’s law.

Whether groundnut shell or bagasse

Our India’s full of biomass.

At first we thought we’d have to spend

But that’s not true, for in the end,

The more we thought, the more we slaved

We did invest but we also saved.

And solar is still getting cheaper

And as we do start digging deeper

In India it will hit the goal

Of being cheaper than even coal

In just a handful of years.

Already we and our peers

Are sourcing solar electricity

At lower rates than from the utility.

For quite some time we’ve been extorted

As their finances aren’t still sorted.

A silver lining can be seen,

All this incentivises green.

There are many paths that we can see

For achieving Carbon neutrality.

But the cheapest way is certainly

Through energy efficiency.

In times of plenty it was fine

To overuse and over design!

But now we find we always gain

If we only use our brain.

Real interest rates are very low

And high returns quickly flow

From any energy saving device.

For business this is very nice.

Not only are returns quite brisk

There’s also very little risk.

In India mandated CSR

Can help us go very far.

Multiple benefits is what one sees

With water projects or growing trees.

Good livelihoods are created.

Our carbon emissions are abated.

Trees planted at a river’s source

Maintain the flow throughout its course.

So many benefits we can see:

The preservation of biodiversity,

Now different species can be tried

Useful products can be supplied

Like biomass or edible fruits

And yet the trunk and the roots

Can sequester carbon, clean the air,

A win-win that is very fair.

3rd Lever: Electrification and Transmission

From government, all that is sought

Is steady and robust support

To electrify our transportation

And ensure that the Indian nation

Vigorously does its bit

To efficiently store and transmit

Quite intermittent green energy.

With solar and wind there’s synergy.

Their peaks are not correlated

So storage needs can be abated.

Green energy buyers have been dazed

As wheeling charges have been raised.

Net metering comes at a cost.

Thus all the benefit is lost!

Instead of being incentivised

Green Energy is penalised!

Dear policy makers won’t you please

Let energy move with greater ease

4th Lever: No New Coal Plants

Right now coal still looks cheap

But the environmental cost is steep

Both climate change and air pollution

Show that coal’s not the solution.

Green energy costs will steadily fall

So coal of course is not at all

Reliable for very long.

New projects could go very wrong.

Investing now can’t be a gain

If new projects can’t sustain.

Only fossil fuels with sequestration

Should be the rule throughout our nation.

 

Q: Are there perceptions that green growth is difficult to achieve and alternatively development cannot be green? What are your views on this, and what is the bargain that India can be making here?

A: No Bargain or Tradeoff

I’ve shown we can decarbonise

While we also monetise.                                

So never fall for either or.

Our hearts and minds demand much more.

Net zero emissions is in sight.

Businesses are seeing the light.

There’s no reason for our Group to fear

We’ll be net zero by next year.

And no there is no major cost

With our initiatives nothing’s lost.

There really is no give and take

We can both eat and have our cake.

All money spent is CSR

Which as I’ve shown can take us far.

So businesses must play a role

By setting an ambitious goal.

They can pay their climate dues

Without anything to lose.

 

Q: What role can businesses play in creating the demand for green growth and leading on low carbon development practices?

The Role of Business

Businesses can act one by one

But much more can be won

By also acting collectively

And doing so reflectively.

For WBCSD’s

Membership one now foresees

Science-based goals reached very fast.

The energy intensive, expectedly last,

Could manage with setoffs instead.

The others could well forge ahead.

Their partnership with CII

Means many more would get to try.

There is a role in advocacy

With good supportive policy.

A good global carbon price

Would solve the problem in a trice.

And nothing much would be lost,

Indeed there is no net cost.

For going green we miss incentives

At least get rid of disincentives!

And of course it would be great

If all stake holders collaborate

To develop technology that’s green.

We should, hand in hand, plan it

Preserving people, profit and planet.

[Source: Climate Home News]

Good (air quality) news you probably didn’t hear about

A new study in The Lancet has shown that between 2013 and 2017, air pollution in 74 key Chinese cities fell by a third, driven by a 85.4% decline in household air pollution and a 12% decline in PM2.5. As a result, the death rate attributable to air pollution has plummeted by more than 60%, saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

(Although – gulp – the average annual population-weighted PM2·5 exposure in China was 52·7 μg/m3 (95% uncertainty interval [UI] 41·0–62·8) in 2017, which is 9% lower than in 1990 (57·8 μg/m3, 45·0–67·0)).

[Source: Future Crunch, 17 Sep 2020]

the new AQI

[Source: (US) National Weather Service Spokane]

Changes in air quality during lockdown in Auckland

This paper presents a case study from Auckland, where traffic flows reduced by 60–80% as a result of a government-led initiative to contain the virus by limiting all transport to only essential services. Ambient pollutant concentrations of NO2, O3, BC, PM2.5, and PM10 are compared between the lockdown period and comparable periods in the historical air pollution record, while taking into account changes in the local meteorology.

This ‘natural experiment’ in source emission reductions had significant but non-linear impacts on air quality. While emission inventories and receptor modelling approaches confirm the dominance of traffic sources for NOx (86%), and BC (72%) across the city, observations suggest a consequent reduction in NO2 of only 34–57% and a reduction in BC of 55–75%. The observed reductions in PM2.5 (still likely to be dominated by traffic emissions), and PM10 (dominated by sea salt, traffic emissions to a lesser extent, and affected by seasonality) were found to be significantly less (8–17% for PM2.5 and 7–20% for PM10).

[Source: Patel H., et al., 2020. Implications for air quality management of changes in air quality during lockdown in Auckland (New Zealand) in response to the 2020 SARS-CoV-2 epidemic. Science of the Total Environment. Vol 746. Dec 2020. 141129. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.141129]

 

Report: Brake Dust Pollution ‘As Harmful To Health As Diesel’


New research finds brake dust has a “worrying” effect on health, with potentially “important policy implications” given it makes up a larger proportion of traffic pollution than exhaust fumes. When cars brake, they release metallic dust into the air. According to scientists behind the study, these particles stop vital immune cells from doing their job of protecting our lungs and lead to a greater risk of bacterial infections such as coughs, colds, pneumonia and bronchitis.

The UK-based research group was surprised to find that the brake dust had similar effects as diesel fumes, which typically receive more attention.

The study points out that exhaust pollution only makes up 7% of small particulate matter pollution (PM2.5). The rest comes from non-exhaust sources – namely from tires, clutches and brake pads. The latter is responsible for 20% of particulates.

Ian Mudway, who led the research at the MRC Centre for Environment and Health at King’s College, London, said that while it is “completely justified” that all eyes are on exhaust emissions, “we should not forget the importance of other components”.

A European transition to electric cars, which have less need to brake, “could be a slight benefit”, said Florent Grelier, an engineer at Brussels-based green group Transport & Environment. “Though of course, any car with a brake is going to be contributing.”

Mudway agreed, saying: “There is no such thing as a zero-emission vehicle, and as regulations to reduce exhaust emissions kick in, the contribution from these sources are likely to become more significant.”

According to Grelier, it is possible non-exhaust pollutants will be included in the post Euro-6 car emissions regulation, due in mid-2020. “That being said, the negotiations are still in very early stages,” he added.
He forecast that continued pressure from the EU’s Joint Research Centre and mounting scientific scrutiny will extend the conversation from exhausts to non-exhaust sources of air pollution.

Frans Timmermans, European Commission executive vice-president in charge of the European Green Deal, has said new measures are required to address tire pollution.

[Source: Car Lines, Feb 2020]

Reducing Air Pollution Comes With Instant Health Benefits

Continued exposure to air pollution has been linked to a whole host of diseases from pulmonary ailments to brain-related ones in people of all ages. It follows then that reducing exposure to toxic air should have health benefits. And indeed, that is what the authors of a new study have found.

In fact, say the researchers from the Environmental Committee of the Forum of International Respiratory Societies (FIRS), the health benefits can be quite dramatic. “Reducing pollution at its source can have a rapid and substantial impact on health,” they explain in the paper published in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society.

“Within a few weeks, respiratory and irritation symptoms, such as shortness of breath, cough, phlegm, and sore throat, disappear; school absenteeism, clinic visits, hospitalizations, premature births, cardiovascular illness and death, and all-cause mortality decrease significantly.”

They reached this conclusion after reviewing the results of various interventions worldwide that have served to reduce the extent of air pollution at its source. They then evaluated the outcomes and examined how long they took to manifest themselves. The results were eye-opening.

In Ireland, for instance, during the early stages of a ban on smoking the health benefits included a 13% drop in all-cause mortality, a 26% drop in the rate of ischemic heart disease, a 32% drop in the number of strokes, and a 38% drop in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  Not only that but non-smokers also greatly benefited from the ban on smoking. Perhaps that should come as no surprise as second hand smoking has been known to have adverse health effects for non smokers who are exposed to cigarette smoke.

Meanwhile, a 13-month-long closure of a steel mill in Utah, in the United States, led to a state of affairs whereby hospitalizations for pneumonia, pleurisy, bronchitis and asthma were halved. The daily mortality fell by 16% for every 100 μg/m3 PM10 (a pollutant) decrease. Pregnant women were less likely to have premature births while school absenteeism by children also decreased by 40%.

In Nigeria, where indoor cooking has long been a health hazard, especially for poor families, in families that reduced indoor air pollution at home by using clean cook stoves pregnant women gave birth to children with higher birthweights, experienced greater gestational age at delivery, and had less perinatal mortality, the researchers say.

“We knew there were benefits from pollution control, but the magnitude and relatively short time duration to accomplish them were impressive,” said Dean Schraufnagel, a physician who was the report’s lead author. “Our findings indicate almost immediate and substantial effects on health outcomes followed reduced exposure to air pollution. It’s critical that governments adopt and enforce WHO guidelines for air pollution immediately.”

[Source: Car Lines, Jan 2020]

Air pollution is much worse than we thought

Ditching fossil fuels would pay for itself through clean air alone.

The evidence is now clear enough that it can be stated unequivocally: It would be worth freeing ourselves from fossil fuels even if global warming didn’t exist. Especially now that clean energy has gotten so cheap, the air quality benefits alone are enough to pay for the energy transition.

This conclusion has been reaffirmed by the latest air quality research, presented at a recent hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform by Drew Shindell, Nicholas professor of earth science at Duke University (and a lead author on both recent IPCC reports).

Shindell’s testimony reveals that the effects of air pollution are roughly twice as bad as previously estimated.

“The air quality scientific community has hypothesized this for at least a decade, but research advances have let us quantify and confirm this notion, over and over,” says Rebecca Saari, an air quality expert who teaches in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Waterloo. “The air quality ‘co-benefits’ are generally so valuable that they exceed the cost of climate action, often many times over.”

If the numbers are shocking, it’s because the science has been developing rapidly. First, says Shindell, “there’s been a huge upsurge in work in developing countries, in particular China,” which has produced larger data sets and a wider, fuller picture of the real-world effects of exposure.

Second, where scientists used to focus almost exclusively on pollution effects for which there is an established and well-understood biological pathway, the recent production of enormous data sets (for instance, the entire population of more than 60 million Medicare patients) has allowed them to uncover new statistical correlations.

With giant data sets, “you can control for socioeconomic status, temperature, hypertension and other existing conditions,” and other variables, says Shindell. “You can convincingly demonstrate that correlation is in fact causal, because you can rule out essentially every other possibility.”

For example, scientists now know that exposure to smog (tiny, microscopic particulates) hurts prenatal and young brains. Even though they don’t yet fully understand the biological mechanism, they know it reduces impulse control and degrades academic performance. Similarly, they know it hurts the kidneys, the spleen, even the nervous system.

“The well-understood pathways, things like strokes, lower respiratory infections, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, only seem to capture about half the total,” Shindell says. “When you look at the [new] studies, you find that air pollution seems to affect almost every organ in the human body.”

“About twice as many people die in total as die just from the pathways we understand,” says Shindell. “We’ve been underestimating all along.”

While that may sound like a big jump, it is likely a lower bound. On both air pollution and climate change, the study omitted many effects that “are clearly present but cannot yet be reliably quantified.” The true numbers are almost certainly higher.

New air pollution research ought to break the climate policy logjam

Climate change has often been framed as an intractable problem for international coordination, a matter of shared sacrifice, with every country incentivized to be a “free rider,” reaping the benefits without taking on any of the costs.

But the latest air pollution research, coupled with the plunging cost of clean energy, should render that dynamic moot.

It is true that climate change can only be averted with the entire world’s cooperation; if the US reduces its emissions to net zero but the other countries of the world (especially China and India) continue on their current trajectory, it will make almost no difference in temperature. The health benefits of avoided severe heat will not manifest.

However — and this is the crucial fact — the air quality benefits will manifest, no matter what the rest of the world does. Shindell’s team ran a version of their scenario in which the US came into compliance with a 2°C pathway but the rest of the world continued with current policies. “We found that US action alone would bring us more than two-thirds of the health benefits of worldwide action over the next 15 years,” Shindell testified, “with roughly half the total over the entire 50-year period analyzed.”

The air quality benefits arrive much sooner than the climate benefits. They are, at least for the next several decades, much larger. They can be secured without the cooperation of other countries. And, by generating an average of $700 billion a year in avoided health and labor costs, they will more than pay for the energy transition on their own. Climate change or no climate change, it’s worth ditching fossil fuels.

And if this is true in the US — which, after all, has comparatively clean air — it is true tenfold for countries like China and India, where air quality remains abysmal. A Lancet Commission study in 2017 found that in 2015, air pollution killed 1.81 million people in India and 1.58 million in China.

Air pollution ought to be seen as a global civil rights crisis

The extraordinary level of suffering humanity is currently experiencing from air pollution is not necessary for modernity; it could be reduced, at a cost well below the net social benefits, with clean energy technologies on hand.

If they are not necessary, then the millions of lives ended or degraded by fossil fuels every year are a choice. And when suffering on this scale, that is this brutally inequitable, becomes a choice, it enters the same ethical terrain as war, slavery, and genocide. The effects are more distributed over time and geography, as are the decision-making and the moral culpability, but the cumulative impact on human well-being — on our longevity, health, learning, and happiness — is comparable, and every bit as much worth fighting.

[Abridged: Vox]