Over the past month, Connecticut residents have heeded warnings from state officials and stayed close to home and off the roads, and it’s improving air quality.

Officials from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection reported last week that emissions are down nearly 40%. State ambient air quality monitoring data shows a reduction in NO2 and fine particulate matter since March 1.

The recent improvements in air quality come at a high cost, as communities grapple with business closures and stay-at-home orders as a result of the spread of COVID-19.

In Connecticut, that brought reductions in traffic counts from early March through the end of the month: traffic volume on most roads was down 40 to 50% on weekdays and as much as 70% on weekends.

“Unprecedented reductions in vehicular traffic in combination with normal seasonal factors have resulted in reduced levels of monitored air pollution, which, if sustained, would have a positive impact on the environment and public health,” DEEP officials found.

Officials warn that preliminary data is not fully quality assured, but if accurate, it is likely related to the reduction in all fossil fuel combustion associated with a wide variety of sources including power plants, manufacturing, and reduced vehicular traffic both in Connecticut and in the greater New York City metro area.

Courtesy of NASA
Average between March 2015 and March 2019 (Courtesy of NASA)

NASA satellite data of NO2 from the Aura Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) over the Northeast shows that the NO2 levels in March 2020 are about 30% lower on average when compared to the mean between 2015 and 2019. The region the satellite data shows includes the I-95 corridor from Washington, DC to Boston.

To quantify the difference, NASA said that March 2020 “shows the lowest monthly atmospheric nitrogen dioxide levels of any March” since they started keeping such records in 2005.

NASA warns that further analysis is required to rigorously quantify the amount of the change in NO2 levels associated with changes in pollutant emissions versus natural variations in weather.

Courtesy of NASA
NO2 levels in March 2020 (Courtesy of NASA)

Environmentalists are hoping to find a way to sustain it.

“Sustaining these reductions by implementing more permanent programs to further reduce power plant emissions, increase energy efficiency investments, increase deployment of renewable energy sources, eliminate unnecessary vehicle trips, and deploying more electric vehicles on the road would all have positive impacts on improving air quality and public health throughout Connecticut,” DEEP officials said in a PowerPoint presentation.

Jordan Stutt, carbon programs director for the Acadia Center, an environmental advocacy group, said this pandemic is in “no way a silver lining.”

He said clean air is great, but we shouldn’t be dependent on an economic shutdown for people in Hartford, New London, New Haven, and Bridgeport to breathe clean air.

Charles Rothenberger, an attorney with Save the Sound, said when officials are looking to restart the economy they need to think about the air quality gains and how they can continue the process.

He said telecommuting has exploded during this time period and businesses should think about keeping that as part of their business moving forward because it will reduce the number of vehicles on the road.

“We rarely find ourselves in a position where as a society, we get to think about: what does the future look like?” Rothenberger said.

In January, Gov. Ned Lamont declined to commit to a Transportation Climate Initiative proposal that would have Connecticut and 11 other states use higher gas prices to fund cleaner transportation.

The Transportation Climate Initiative says that if the region wants to reduce emissions by 25% over 10 years, it will likely have to inflate the cost of gas by as much as 17 cents per gallon. The increase in gas prices is the result of charging fuel and oil distributors for violations of new carbon emission limits in the member states.

The TCI memorandum was supposed to be finalized this spring, but that timeline, according to Rothenberger, will likely be extended to the fall.

“We’re not anticipating a hard push for consideration by the states until the fall,” Rothenberger said.

Stutt warned that the drop in emissions is temporary and the state and the region need “sustained change and policies to help people enjoy a better quality of life.”