Drop in Bay Area air pollution from COVID-19 lockdown previews world of electric cars

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- It's the environmental tradeoff we make every day. The Bay Area's popular commuter corridors are also air pollution alleys. But now, a new study is pointing out the power of a clean solution.

"Yes, so we've been thinking about this as a model for the electric car," says professor Ron Cohen, Ph.D., of the University of California, Berkeley.

Professor Cohen and his team have spent nearly a decade building out a network of CO2 sensors known as BEACON. Scattered across the interior Bay Area, they can measure carbon dioxide and other pollutants on a micro level. And early this year, they had an historic opportunity, as the Bay Area began the COVID-19 shelter-in-place.

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Air quality around the Bay Area was exceptionally good Thursday, as streets and highways around the region were practically empty amid the coronavirus pandemic.



"And we saw this incredible change. The amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere in the Bay Area was 25% lower in that period than just before the lockdown six weeks before," says Cohen.

But Cohen believes the rubber really meets the road in another set of data. It shows what that drop looked like along major Bay Area freeways like interstate 880. With the lighter concentration potentially mirroring the same positive effect that electric vehicles could have on those same corridors.

"So the thing about electric cars is it's especially easy to think about. The emissions from an electric car are at a power plant far away. They have no combustion related emissions on the road. So an electric car on the road is the same as no car on the road," Cohen points out.

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He believes the monitoring system is powerful, because it can hone in not only on freeways but also adjacent neighborhoods, many of them low income. Providing one more argument for the environmental benefit electric cars could provide to the Bay Area.

Professor Cohen and his team at the University of California have just begun a project to install a similar sensor system in Glasgow Scotland. The goal is to have it operational in time for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in that city in 2021.

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