Matthew Bourne

April 02 2020


For weeks now, the daily news surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak has been grim. But there's a distinctly positive side effect of this pandemic: As people around the globe restrict their movement, fewer cars are on the roads and as a result, air pollution is plummeting. The shift in pollution levels has been immediate, and the stark contrast between "normal" and post-COVID pollution is made apparent through satellite imagery.

For example, a satellite that detects emissions in the atmosphere observed steep declines in pollution over major U.S. metros, including Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, Chicago and Atlanta. The images were first published by the New York Times, using data sourced from the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite and processed by Descartes Lab.

The normally bustling city of L.A. is generally home to some of the highest smog levels in America. With businesses and schools closing their doors this month, the city's infamous traffic jams have disappeared. Air pollution in the city has declined significantly as a result; the image above shows the atmospheric levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2)—influenced heavily by car and truck emissions, as well as power plants and other industrial processes—over Los Angeles, this March as compared to last.

A similar effect was observed in the New York City area, as well, as evidenced below:

“[New York City] has never seen anything like the drop we saw starting last Friday,” said Roisin Commane to The New York Times, an assistant professor at Columbia University who conducts air-monitoring work, referring to March 13, 2020. “We often see dips during weekends or over holidays, but this is completely different.”

While the short-term impact of fewer cars on the road seems encouraging, scientists are quick to point out that air pollution is expected to rise again when the COVID-19 outbreak subsides. In fact, the World Meteorological Organization says that past experience “suggests that emissions declines during economic crises are followed by a rapid upsurge.” Rather than view this occurrence as a health benefit—because long-term exposure to air pollution tends to have a larger impact on public health—we should regard this data mostly as enlightening & educational, a reminder of the impact that gasoline-powered automobiles and industrial processes have on our environment.

The “short-term-ness” of COVID-19 isolation on air pollution levels is shown quite remarkably in the animation, below, which features data from the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite, processed by the European Space Agency (ESA). The data showcases NO2 emissions above China from December 20, 2019 until March 16, 2020. The drop in emissions in late-January (a nearly 40 percent decline) is clearly visible, coinciding with the nationwide quarantine. From the beginning of March, as life returned to some semblance of normal, the NO2 levels begin to rise again.

The ESA also released an animation that highlights a pollution decline over northern Italy, as that country entered lockdown, seen below.

Paul Monks, professor of air pollution at the University of Leicester, in England, said to The Guardian, “We are now, inadvertently, conducting the largest-scale [emissions] experiment ever seen. Are we looking at what we might see in the future if we can move to a low-carbon economy? Not to denigrate the loss of life, but this might give us some hope from something terrible. To see what can be achieved.”

Indeed, there are important lessons to be drawn from the data. While NO2 itself is not a greenhouse gas, the pollutant originates from the same outputs (gas-burning cars, industrial processes, etc.) that are responsible for the brunt of the world's carbon emissions, which drive global heating.

As winter sports lovers, we’re all too aware of the negative impacts that global warming has had, and will continue to have on snowfall totals and average snowpack. By some estimates, winter recreation locations in the Northern Hemisphere could experience shorter ski seasons exceeding 50 percent by 2050, and 80 percent in 2090.

Exercise your rights as a citizen and as a consumer: Save energy; reduce, reuse, recycle; eat low-carbon; act against deforestation; support eco-forward businesses; demand that your local government leaders make clean-energy commitments; and reduce emissions. With regards to the latter suggestion—as it’s in line with the subject of this blog post—remember that each liter of fuel that a car uses equals 2.5 kilos of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere.

A recent study ranked 148 individual actions on climate change according to their impact, and going car-free was the number-one most effective action an individual could take (except not having kids). In industrialized nations, getting rid of your car can reduce 2.5 tons of CO2 per year; that’s approximately one quarter of the annual emissions contributed by each individual in developed countries, on average.

At FW, our commitment to sustainability is a key value of our brand. We respect the mountains that surround us and are committed to taking these positive actions for our planet, from day one:

We’re a proud member of 1% for the Planet. One percent of our sales directly support non-profit organizations that serve the environment we love.

We’re proud to have established our own clothing repair program, with a mind for extending the lifecycle of our garments, and keeping clothing out of landfills. We always aim to repair rather than replace.

We use sustainably sourced materials that have proven to be both durable and functional.

We employ a full-time Quality and Sustainability Manager, emphasizing attention to detail in our premium products and eco-forward approach to business.

Quality and Sustainability Manager, Sara Asmoarp.

In fact, here she is at work in London this past week, at a meeting of LWARB, discussing circular economies in the textiles industry.

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