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Blog The Surprising Stats About Vehicle Pollution During Covid-19

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Environmental Benefits of the Pandemic Pause

In the earliest months of the COVID-19 lockdown, the internet was filled with feel-good stories about the unexpected effects quarantine was having on the environment. With fewer commuters, cities were clearing of smog, whales were spotted in the newly clean waters of the Hudson River, and nature everywhere was enjoying an unexpected return to pre-industrial levels of pollution (or at least trying to).

In a time when there simply wasn’t a lot of good news to go around, these environmental triumphs were heralded as a surprise victory – one that could perhaps serve as a goal for that “new normal” that was promised whenever the threat of the pandemic finally subsided. If the “pandemic pause” could act as some sort of global reset button, why not try to make things more environmentally friendly on the other side?

Environmental Enthusiasm Fades

Unfortunately, that enthusiasm for a better future didn’t last nearly as long as the pandemic itself. Fuel demand, which bottomed out in April and May, returned to nearly pre-COVID levels by the end of 2020, according to a Rhodium Group report. Perhaps the most surprising part of this report is just how quickly passenger vehicle travel rebounded after travel restrictions were lifted. After a 40% decline from the previous year in April, demand for gasoline was down only 13% by June – and it has stayed within a few percentage points of that number ever since. Diesel fuel, meanwhile, only ever dipped to 18% below the previous year’s demand and has recovered almost completely to 2019 levels (this is most likely due to the huge swing towards an online delivery-based economy as lockdowns and social distancing made in-person shopping a thing of the past).

Post-Pandemic Fuel Trends

The only type of fuel consumption that remains considerably reduced is jet fuel. The airline industry was hit hard by this pandemic, and at the height of travel restrictions demand for jet fuel fell nearly 70% from the previous year, far eclipsing the drops in both gas and diesel demand. However, there is little reason to expect this trend to continue once the virus is finally under control. The dip in air travel appears similar to the dip in mass transit in general, indicating that a reluctance to be in close proximity to other passengers is mainly to blame. While planes, trains, and buses will be slow to repopulate, they will surely do so in time.

The drop in public transportation usage also helps us understand just where people have been driving during quarantine, when many tourist destinations were closed and many offices encouraged telecommuting. Commuters who had to return to the office felt more comfortable doing so in their own vehicles, rather than in the close quarters of public transit. But perhaps another part of the answer lies in the revival of a once-popular American pastime: the joyride. Cars give people a self-contained environment, a way for bored quarantiners to get out of the house without being around crowds and to get a change of scenery without putting themselves at too much risk.

Post-COVID Driving Trends

Whether or not the trend in driving for fun is here to stay, the writing on the wall indicates that post-COVID America will feature just as much driving as it did before the pandemic, if not more. And although that may be a good sign for the economy, the ‘improvements’ to the environment may be short-lasting. Overall greenhouse gas emissions in the United States dropped 10.3% in 2020 – the largest drop in overall emissions since World War II – but the accompanying economic tumble underscores just how unplanned this sudden disruption truly was. As the rebound in fuel demand indicates, Americans are eager to get back to pre-COVID levels of travel – even if that means returning to pre-COVID levels of pollution.

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