Coronavirus Led to Lower Air Pollution. How Should Fleets Respond?

Clean Air Expectations Cali


All around the world, including in the U.S., something interesting has happened this year: The air has gotten cleaner.

A decrease in travel on the roads and in the air due to the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to improved air quality. One example is notoriously smoggy Los Angeles, which in April experienced its longest stretch of good air quality days since 1995.

What does this mean for government fleet professionals and elected officials? They’d be wise to take note because their constituents likely have. The improved air quality has generated a lot of coverage in local, national and international media outlets. Also adding to the public awareness is that many people have been spending time outside for recreational activities as one of the few escapes from stay-at-home orders.

This may be causing a shift in expectations for air quality among the general public, both locally with respect to pollution like particulates and smog and globally with respect to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

With transportation being the leading cause of GHG emissions in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency, public fleets can do their part by reducing their emissions with cleaner alternatives to petroleum diesel. Private fleets should act too — their customers and investors also are putting an increased emphasis on sustainability.

With the right fuel, fleets can make the switch easily and start reducing all of their harmful emissions immediately.

Cleaner air

Here’s a snapshot of how widespread the air quality improvements in addition to Los Angeles:

Let’s not declare the current situation good for the environment, however. The environment still faces great challenges. For example, global warming is continuing. March 2020 was the second-warmest March on record, and 2020 is “very likely” to rank in the top-five warmest years on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Also, the air quality gains will likely be short lived. As people and businesses return to normal activities, so too will air pollution. But it doesn’t have to return to the same levels as before.

Something must be done, but the environmental challenge before us is daunting. To put it in perspective, the U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions will decrease by 7.5% in 2020. A United Nations body of climate experts says global emissions need to decrease by over 6% every year of the 2020s to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. In other words, we need 10 straight years of this — but this year’s reductions are driven by the major disruption to global travel and business. Future reductions will need to be more intentional.

Integrated fuel strategy

Addressing climate change will take a comprehensive approach from all sectors. Fleets can do their part by reducing emissions. There are a number of tactics they can take: optimizing routes, reducing unnecessary idling, using equipment with features that decrease aerodynamic drag and thereby improve fuel mileage.

One of the easiest things is to convert to a lower-carbon fuel. Now is a good time to research options. Besides the current situation, interest in environmental sustainability has been growing for years among the general public and policymakers.

It’s smart to take a comprehensive approach that considers both the near term and long term. For example, a lot of the recent conversation on alternative fuels has been around electric vehicles. They do offer promise, but in terms of performance, charging infrastructure and cost, a lot of that potential is years down the road.

Waiting for future technology to become viable may not be agreeable to the public. And we know the environment cannot afford to wait, as demonstrated by data mentioned earlier on the carbon reduction needed every year this decade. Each day a fleet waits to switch to cleaner fuels, more harmful emissions enter our communities.

Fleets should consider an integrated energy management approach. Picking an alternative fuel doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing decision, and having a mixed fleet can help them figure out what works for their fleet and what does not.

It can also help alleviate concerns over cost. For example, some fuel sources require major vehicle and fuel infrastructure modifications, or even all new equipment. At REG , we’ve spoken with government fleet managers who are adding a couple of new alternative fuel buses, but they cannot afford to switch more of their fleet and instead keep the rest running on 100% petroleum diesel.

Choosing a drop-in solution helps avoid the added cost while still helping the environment. For example, five buses running a biodiesel blend of B20 (a fuel that’s 20% biodiesel and 80% petroleum diesel) is the equivalent of one bus running on 100% renewable fuel. This may be a more scalable solution for an entire diesel fleet and will do more overall good than switching only a couple of vehicles.

In other words, they can start reducing carbon emissions immediately.

Something else to research is how different fuels have different effects on emissions. The California Air Resources Board, arguably the leading clean air agency in the world, assigns fuels “carbon intensity scores” as a measure of greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing and consuming a fuel. Here are the CI scores of some popular fuels, with lower scores meaning the fuel is more environmentally friendly:1

  • Biodiesel: 27.0
  • Renewable diesel: 34.6
  • Compressed natural gas from fossil fuels: 79.2
  • Electricity from the California grid: 93.8
  • Petroleum diesel: 100.5

 What you can do

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed so much in terms of public health, personal interactions, how we work — and the environment.

The low levels of air pollution currently over our cities may not last once road travel increases, but they have definitely shown us how nice it is to have cleaner air and lower GHG emissions — and that should motivate us to find ways to clean up the air sooner.

If you are a fleet manager or owner, one way you can make a difference is by asking how you can start reducing your fleet’s carbon emissions right now.

1Average biodiesel and renewable diesel CI scores in 2019: values for fossil-based CNG, grid electricity and petroleum diesel:


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