New research enabled by giant data sets shows that the effects of air pollution are probably twice as bad as previously estimated. Air pollution also exposes people to a greater risk of catching COVID-19 and dying from it. In the US alone, quantifying the benefits of air quality through avoided deaths, avoided healthcare spending, and the concomitant increase in labor productivity would lead to $700 billion+, an amount that far exceeds the cost of the energy transition.
The effect of air pollution on human health has been well documented for a long time, but there is another interesting wellbeing twist in this: the relationship between working from home (WFH), commuting, our life satisfaction and air pollution.
So far, few studies have focused on the connection between the pandemic and commuting time, but COVID-19—by forcing millions of people to work from home—has also dramatically reduced aggregate commuting times. According to the freelancing platform Upwork, in the US, it has saved an average of 49.6 minutes a day for those working remotely. Since in the US most commutes take place by car, it has also saved $758 million a day in time, fuel and health costs (by the calculations made by Upwork’s chief economist), representing an aggregate $90 billion saved since the practice of WFH started in mid-March.
The combined impact of wellbeing benefits (commuting destroys wellness) and reduction in air pollution is therefore considerable. In the US, commuting times have increased by 11 minutes a day since the early 1980s, amounting to an average of two full days a year. When considering the pros and cons of WHF, commuting is a determining element.
These new findings might break the “free rider” problem that besets climate policies around the world. Contrary to climate benefits that are often vague and long term, air quality benefits are immediate and can be (almost) secured on a country basis. Therefore, individual countries will be incentivized to improve air quality and probably be forced to do so by rising activism. Concentrated efforts for cleaner air could then lead the way in the fight against global warming.