Pandemic Pristine: 2020 was one of the cleanest years for air quality in Charlotte thanks to stay-at-home orders

North Carolina

(FOX 46 CHARLOTTE) – Car ignitions went silent in 2020 as cars stayed parked, planes grounded. “It’s really important that we saw that tangible benefit of driving less” reflects Fencil.

The sudden drop in emissions amid Stay-at-Home orders gave way to cleaner air, “it shows that if we make different choices we will actually see benefits in terms of cleaner air and a healthier environment.”

Meg Fencil is the Program Director of Sustain Charlotte, a champion of green living in the Queen City.

“In Mecklenburg County, tail pipe emissions from vehicles are the main source of air pollutants that lead to ground level ozone which is hazardous to human health.”

Long days with extra sunlight, hot, stagnant, and steamy air make summer the peak of the ozone season, one that could be getting longer as summers get hotter in Charlotte.

But as travel came to a screeching halt in the Carolinas, the data is clear. Air quality won in 2020, now one of the cleanest years for air quality in Charlotte on record. No code orange, red, or purple alerts for ozone, “We also found the number of good air quality days has more than doubled since 2005.”

Megan Green, the Environmental Manager with Mecklenburg County, is proud of the county’s long-term preventative measures, “Grants to replace aging diesel engines program, we also have a breathing room initiative that’s basically our region’s plan for how to continue to see air quality improvements, and then we also offer compliance assistance to our local industrial sources to make sure that they’re meeting all the requirements for those specific facilities.”

But analysis done by the county shows a 40% drop in Charlotte traffic during March and April, and a 20% drop all summer. “Even in looking at the full summer, we still observed that the ozone concentrations that we measured here locally, were 7% lower than we would’ve predicted based on meteorological conditions,” reflects Green.

A 7% drop in emissions was also found globally, but as more of us get vaccinated and get back to work, emissions are quickly revving up.

So how do we keep this progress, this pandemic-pristine air?

“Certainly vehicle electrification is an option to reduce tailpipe emissions,” suggests Green.

“Some employers may be able to offer full-time telecommuting, some employees may be able to offer their employees to telecommute a few days a week, or just to come into the office less frequently,” suggests Fencil.

But for essential workers, infrastructure in the Queen City could keep us from being green.

30% of Charlotteans, that a quarter million people, don’t drive. And for the ones that do, it’s expensive! The average household here spends over $15,000 a year, just on driving their car. And for those who want to bike to work, the problem is most of these greenways around Charlotte don’t connect.

“Commute time is actually the single strongest predictor of whether a family escapes poverty. And without sustainable, and affordable commuting options like walking, biking, and transit, we can become what we are now which is a pretty car dependent culture,” says Fencil.

That can begin to shift with more frequent bus stops, accessible light rails, connected walkways, and protected bike lanes — getting our hearts pumping, fresh air flowing…

“….and they wouldn’t have to get on I-77. That would help us to grow in a more sustainable way, so all these hundreds of thousands of people that will move to charlotte in the coming decades have transportation choices. It’s not about saying that people shouldn’t drive a car, but it’s about saying people should have a choice for how to get around,” says Fencil.

It just takes some mindfulness, knowing that a 5 minute drive to the grocery store can leave pollutants in our atmosphere for hundreds, if not a thousand, years.

The silence of our engines in 2020….could be one of our greatest post-pandemic lessons yet.

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