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COVID-19 and clean air: An opportunity for radical change

10/08/2020 | The Lancet Planetary Health

Two events have unfolded that suggest this time of crisis can also be a time to radically improve air quality: First, the global rise of the Black Lives Matter movement calls for an end to structural racism and, second, the worldwide reduction in air pollution shows that cleaner, healthier air is possible.

Together these events have mobilized millions to denounce the structural violence that underlies the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on people of color, and has allowed us to imagine a world with fewer deaths caused by air pollution.

Our Director Dr. Aaron Bernstein joined Dr. Philip Landrigan from Boston College and Dr. Agnes Binagwaho from WHO to outline five actions societies must take to catalyze revolutionary improvements in air quality, in a new paper in The Lancet Planetary Health.

  • Sharply increase private investments in renewable energy, and use post-COVID-19 recovery funds to “transition with breathtaking speed.”
  • Redesign cities to prioritize people over vehicles by creating more safe bike lanes, vehicle exclusion zones, and congestion pricing. This will make us less reliant on fossil fuels and vastly improve public health by cutting air pollution.
  • Prevent further growth of natural gas infrastructure. The fossil fuel industry would have you believe gas is a clean fuel. It is not. The industry cannot grow any further if we want to limit warming to 1.5ºC and protect public health.
  • Invest generously in communities in which fossil fuel extraction is core to the culture and the economy. Fossil fuel combustion must end, but we can’t leave behind the communities that rely on the production of natural gas.
  • End all subsidies and tax breaks for fossil fuel industries. These massive governmental subsidies and tax breaks perpetuate pollution, disease, and inequities. Those funds should instead go towards the other items on this list.

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to emerge from this crisis and to build a cleaner, healthier, and a more just world that we can deliver with pride to our children and grandchildren.

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Dr. Aaron Bernstein

Aaron Bernstein MD, MPH

Aaron examines the human health effects of global environmental changes with the aim of promoting a deeper understanding of these subjects among students, educators, policy makers, and the public.

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