Improving Air Quality Can Help Reduce Fatalities

Source: By Leticia Phillips, UNICA • Posted: Monday, August 17, 2020

Because of COVID-19 and future respiratory epidemics, we now have another urgent reason to decrease air pollution and improve the quality of our environment by looking past fossil fuels. We can—and must—do more.

The novel coronavirus has forced us to adapt to practices that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago. The handshake is out, masks are in and social distancing is here to stay. While inconvenient, these new habits will soon become second nature to protect ourselves from a ruthless virus.

These simple steps can help, but what if the air we breathe is conspiring with the coronavirus?
A recent Harvard University study concludes that air pollution is linked to significantly higher rates of death in those with disease caused by the coronavirus. The researchers contend that even slightly cleaner air in New York City could have saved hundreds of lives at the height of the pandemic.
The bottom line is that people breathing dirty air day in and day out are far more likely to die from the virus than those in rural areas or metropolitan areas with cleaner air.

“This information can help us prepare by encouraging populations [in polluted areas] to take extra pre-cautions and allocate extra resources to reduce the risk of poor outcomes from COVID-19,” said Xiao Wu, one of the Harvard researchers. “It is likely that COVID-19 will be a part of our lives for quite a long time, despite our hope for a vaccine or treatment. In light of this, we should consider additional measures to protect ourselves from pollution exposure to reduce the COVID-19 death toll.”

The Harvard experts identified the problem. Now it is up to us in the energy and environmental communities to do our part. A good place to start is by speeding up the transition to cleaner fuels. Brazil, with its extensive use of sugarcane ethanol in the transportation sector, can be part of the solution.

Flex-fuel vehicles have long thrived in Brazil, and the country boasts the largest such fleet in the world. Nearly 78 percent of all cars and light-duty trucks run on pure ethanol or an ethanol-gas blend.

The ethanol of choice in Brazil is, of course, made from its own sugarcane.

Comparing Brazilian megacities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro with their counterparts in China or India, for example, the benefits of ethanol are hard to miss. One is that sugarcane ethanol provides up to a 90% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. When compared to gasoline and diesel, sugarcane ethanol significantly reduces the emissions of various pollutants, like sulfur oxides (by about 90% compared to gasoline, about 99% compared to S500 diesel and 50% compared to S10 diesel), particulate matter (by more than 98% compared to gasoline and diesel), and toxic hydrocarbons.

Research conducted by University of São Paulo’s Faculty of Medicine confirmed ethanol’s health benefits by looking closely at that city’s vehicle fleet. São Paulo, South America’s largest and most densely populated city, is already a leader in use of flex-fuel vehicles, but if it depended exclusively on ethanol, the health benefits would be overwhelming: save more than 1,400 lives per year; prevent more than 9,000 hospital admissions per year; save the taxpayers more than $190 million annually.

Brazilian sugarcane ethanol enjoys the distinction of being one of the least carbon-intensive biofuels currently available at commercial scale. The country has bigger plans, as demonstrated by its National Biofuels Policy (RenovaBio) that aims to increase the participation of biofuels, including biodiesel and ethanol made from different raw materials, in the transport matrix with the goal of reducing GHG emissions by 100 million tons in 10 years.

We can—and must—do more. The current process to make sugarcane ethanol taps only one-third of the energy the plant can offer. The remaining two-thirds of energy is locked in leftover fiber and straw. Engineers and scientists are hard at work to use these valuable scraps to produce cellulosic ethanol at an affordable price. Once this happens, cellulosic ethanol has the potential to double the yield of fuel coming from the same amount of land.

Because of COVID-19 and future respiratory epidemics, we now have another urgent reason to decrease air pollution and improve the quality of our environment by looking past fossil fuels.