With much of the country under stay-at-home orders, carbon emissions in some of America’s largest cities have been slashed in half. But despite near-empty roads, the Triangle area hasn't seen a significant drop in pollution just yet.
“The statewide stay-at-home order has not been in place long enough for impacts to be reflected in the air monitoring data,” said Zaynab Nasif, a spokesperson for the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality.
DEQ's Division of Air Quality records hourly levels of carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide — two pollutants closely tied to emissions — at sites along Interstate 40 and across Raleigh.
But William Vizuete, associate professor in the Gillings School of Public Health, said North Carolinians will experience health benefits from social distancing regardless.
He said most Americans experience their largest exposure to air pollution while sitting in their cars.
“When you're sitting in traffic on I-40 or behind a tailpipe, that glass doesn't protect you," he said. "You’re breathing in all those fumes and particles as you drive down the highway."
UNC economics professor Andrew Yates said a temporary reduction in air pollution, however brief, will likely help reduce acute health impacts like shortness of breath, and there’s no question reduced air pollution leads to a decrease in mortality.
“You’re definitely going to see some benefits from less air pollution," he said. "My gut feeling is it's not going to be as much as the deaths, of course, from coronavirus."
Yates said he plans to begin research on the emissions drop using data from cellphones that shows how people are traveling less in each county, as well as data showing a possible decrease in electricity production.
Worldwide, the emissions drop is more significant. According to a March 19 brief by Raymond James & Associates, a Florida-based investment banking firm, global carbon emissions are poised for a steep decline this year.
They forecasted that global carbon dioxide emissions will drop by approximately 2.5 percent in 2020, which would make this only the fourth time in the past 30 years there has been an annual decrease in emissions.
Vizuete said North Carolina may have seen less of an emissions drop so far because most local air pollution actually originates from coal-fired power plants and the Ohio River Valley. More emissions arrive in the area through long-range transport than are produced locally.
Vizuete said the current need to work from home may cause a cultural shift toward remote work that could lead to lasting changes in emissions from commuters.
“People are realizing that they maybe are happy to work at home,” Vizuete said.
But Vizuete said stay-at-home orders aren’t the way to go about climate action.
“Is this a viable way to reduce or improve air quality for the long term? No, not at all. It's quite a drastic blow to our economy,” he said. “There are far more effective ways of improving air quality.”