Coronavirus Led to Lower Air Pollution. How Should We Respond?

With the right fuel, fleets can make the switch easily and start reducing all of their harmful emissions immediately.

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All around the world, something interesting has happened this year: The air has gotten cleaner.

A decrease in travel on the roads and in the air due to the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to improved air quality. One example is notoriously smoggy Los Angeles, which in April experienced its longest stretch of good air quality days since 1995.

What does this mean for companies in the global food and beverage supply chain? The improved air quality has generated a lot of coverage in local, national and international media outlets. Also adding to the public awareness is that many people have been spending more time outside for recreational activities.

This may be causing a shift in expectations for air quality among the general public, both locally with respect to pollution like particulates and smog and globally with respect to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

With transportation being the leading cause of GHG emissions in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, fleets and the companies that hire them can do their part by reducing their emissions with cleaner alternatives to petroleum diesel.

With the right fuel, fleets can make the switch easily and start reducing all of their harmful emissions immediately.

Cleaner air

Here’s a snapshot of how widespread the air quality improvements are natoinwide:

·        In the Northeast U.S., NASA recorded a 30% drop in air pollution in March.

·         Fine particulate matter decreased 10% and nitrogen dioxide 30% in the Detroit area in April.

·         Fine particulate matter in New York City dropped 25% during the lockdown, and major cities in Asia, Europe and South America saw similar or even greater results.

Let’s not declare all of this good for the environment, however. The environment still faces great challenges. For example, global warming is continuing. March was the second-warmest March on record, and 2020 is “very likely” to rank in the Top 5 warmest years on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Also, the air quality gains will likely be short lived. As people and businesses return to normal activities, so too will air pollution. But, it doesn’t have to return to the same levels as before.

Something must be done, but the environmental challenge is daunting. To put it in perspective, the U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions will decrease by 11% in 2020, but then rise by 5% in 2021. A United Nations body of climate experts says global emissions need to decrease by over 6% every year of the 2020s to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. This year’s reductions are driven by the major disruption to global travel and business.  Future reductions will need to be more intentional.

Integrated fuel strategy

Addressing climate change will take a comprehensive approach from all sectors. Companies in the food and beverage supply chain can do their part by reducing fleet emissions, optimizing routes, reducing unnecessary vehicle idling and using equipment with features that decrease aerodynamic drag, thereby improve fuel mileage.

One of the easiest things is to convert to a lower-carbon fuel. Now is a good time to research options. Besides the current situation, interest in environmental sustainability has been growing for years among the general public and policymakers.

It’s smart to take a comprehensive approach that considers both the near term and long term. For example, a lot of the recent conversation on alternative fuels has been around electric vehicles. They do offer promise, but in terms of performance, charging infrastructure and cost, a lot of that potential is years down the road.

Waiting for future technology to become viable may not be agreeable to the public. And, the environment cannot afford to wait, as demonstrated by data mentioned earlier on the carbon reduction needed every year this decade. Each day a fleet waits to switch to cleaner fuels, more harmful emissions enter our communities.

Supply chain executives and the fleets they work with should consider an integrated energy management approach. Picking an alternative fuel doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing decision, and having a mixed fleet can help them figure out what works for their fleet and what does not.

It can also help alleviate concerns over cost. For example, some fuel sources require major vehicle and fuel infrastructure modifications, or even all new equipment. There are fleets that add a couple of new alternative fuel trucks, but they cannot afford to switch more of their fleet and instead keep the rest running on 100% petroleum diesel.

Choosing a drop-in solution, like biodiesel blends, helps avoid the added cost while still helping the environment. A lower-carbon fuel that’s available today and doesn’t require vehicle modifications may be a more scalable solution for an entire diesel fleet and would do more overall good than switching only a couple of truck.

In other words, they can start reducing carbon emissions immediately.

Something else to research is how different fuels have different effects on emissions. The California Air Resources Board assigns fuels “carbon intensity scores” as a measure of greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing and consuming a fuel. Here are the carbon intensity scores of some popular fuels, with lower scores meaning the fuel is more environmentally friendly:

·          Biodiesel: 27.0

·          Renewable diesel: 34.6

·          Compressed natural gas from fossil fuels: 79.2

·          Electricity from the California grid: 93.8

·          Petroleum diesel: 100.5

What you can do

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed so much in terms of public health, personal interactions, how we work — and the environment.

The low levels of air pollution currently over our cities may not last once road travel increases, but they have definitely shown us how nice it is to have cleaner air and lower GHG emissions, and that should motivate us to find ways to clean up the air sooner.

If you operate a fleet or hire fleets to ship your products, one way you can make a difference is by asking how you can start reducing fleet carbon emissions right now.