Mirage or premonition? An apparition gives us a rare view of a clean energy future

by Tara Ramanathan, Helena Molin Valdés, Veerabhadran Ramanathan - 22 April, 2020
Opinion: On the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day the COVID-19 crisis has shown us how quickly our collective action can help the Earth heal.

Last week, amid the doom and gloom of the spread of COVID-19, came a vision of hope for solving the climate crisis, as if giving an early gift for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. For the first time in many decades, people could see the Himalayas from 100 miles away in north India after just one month of the lockdown. This anecdotal data served as an icon for large reductions in air pollution that were picked up by instruments on satellites, around areas of the world subjected to COVID-19 lockdown.

The Himalayas are usually shrouded in a nearly 2-mile-thick layer of brown clouds, a toxic air pollution soup. The sight of the world’s most inspiring mountain range, known to exist but usually invisible from distant cities, could be just a fleeting apparition or it could be a vision of the future depending on our actions during the COVID recovery.

In our research, we have personally observed this soot-laden brown layer with dozens of instruments across aircraft and satellites during experiments in the early 2000s. It was shocking then to document the blanket of pollution stretching from the Indian Ocean up to the highest mountains in the world. The Project Surya initiative with University of California, San Diego and Nexleaf Analytics was designed to poke holes in that blanket to show how both climate and public health changed.

These brown clouds are found worldwide. The famous Denver Brown Cloud is an example. The tint comes from black carbon and pollutant gases that produce ozone. Black carbon and ozone, in addition to being air pollutants, are also powerful global warming agents popularly known as super pollutants, along with methane and hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants.

The majestic Himalayas as well as the blue skies over city skylines throughout the world should show political leaders that emissions of super pollutants can be quickly flattened and bent down to zero, with fast and visible—indeed, stunning—results. What the world needed was an urgent collective action on a large enough scale to offer convincing proof. We now have it – proof that we can reclaim our skies, and in turn our health.

This April 21, 2020, satellite data from NASA shows that aerosol levels over India have dropped significantly since the COVID-19 lockdown began.The first five maps above show aerosol optical depth (AOD) measurements over India during the same March 31 to April 5 period for each year from 2016 through 2020. The sixth map (anomaly) shows how AOD in 2020 compared to the average for 2016-2019. The satellite data and images above were obtained from NASA’s Earth Observatory (https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/146596/airborne-particle-levels-plummet-in-northern-india?src=eoa-iotd)

Epidemiologists have documented the nearly 3.5 million deaths per year that result from inhalation of polluted air outdoors.  In addition, at least  3 million people die each year from inhalation of indoor smoke created by cooking, heating, and lighting using outdated fuels like firewood, dung, and kerosene. And, as a recent Harvard study noted, air pollution could make us even more vulnerable to COVID-19.

The air pollution problem has been known for decades. What is new is the appreciation that black carbon and ozone cause global warming that is surpassed only by that of carbon dioxide. Getting rid of black carbon and ozone is the fastest mitigation measure for bending the warming curve and delaying the onset of dangerous warming by 10 years, this must happen if the world is to maintain the warming well below 2˚C through 2050 and enable it to move to net zero emissions by 2050. Reducing the other short-lived super pollutants—methane and hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants—can bend the curve even more.

The Climate & Clean Air Coalition catalyzes global efforts to mitigate super pollutants with memberships from 70+ nations and 76 organizations. They run 11 initiatives that raise awareness, mobilize resources and lead transformative actions in key polluting sectors. The Coalition’s work to reduce super pollutants can prevent up to 0.6˚ Celsius of warming by the end of the century.

While it is essential to solve the immediate pandemic we cannot forget that the climate crisis is coming at us at an accelerating rate, with the potential to precipitate yet another worldwide health crisis.  As but one example, warming of the planet is projected to promote the northward spread of vector-borne viral diseases like Zika, Chikengunya, and Lyme.

So, how do we keep the skies blue even after COVID lockdowns are removed? We can start by getting rid of about 60% of the black carbon by making clean energy available for the world’s poorest three billion people. The rest of black carbon is mostly a product of transportation, power generation, and industry, which can be quickly reduced to near-zero emissions with targeted measures, as California has done to reduce its black carbon by 90 percent.

We would hope that the evidence drives public support for drastic climate actions such as a zero-emission carbon-free economy.

The climate crisis can be solved if we quickly cut the super pollutants, while also pursuing the transition to clean energy worldwide. Emissions anywhere cause warming everywhere. Making clean energy, including clean cooking, affordable to the poorest three billion is as essential for our survival as it is to their survival. We know from our work providing clean energy in south Asia and Africa that we should think about clean energy access in the same way that we think about vaccines – as a life-saving solution, not just a product.

The global pandemic has shown us how interconnected we are to everyone else in the world. It also has shown us how quickly our collective action can help the Earth heal itself. The immediacy of the crisis resulted in a large percentage of the world’s population acting selflessly and at great economic cost to prevent the spread of COVID-19. We need similar global behavioural change to prevent the worst impacts of climate change and avoid millions of mortalities every year caused by air pollution. We can manage the transition to cleaner air and a safer climate and prevent similar shocks in the future, by putting in place polices and regulations that steer investment in sustainable options so we build back better.

Tara Ramanathan is Director of Clean Cooking at Nexleaf Analytics; Helena Molin Valdés is the head of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) Secretariat at the UN Environment Programme; Veerabhadran Ramanathan is the co-author of Bending the Curve: Climate Change Solutions and distinguished professor of climate sustainability at the UC- San Diego.

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