Pitt | Swanson Engineering
Is Remote Work Helping to Keep Air Pollution at Bay?
Dr. Katherine Hornbostel Shares Some Air Quality—and Lifestyle—Lessons from the Pandemic
Flying and driving—two of the biggest contributors to air pollution—have decreased when the COVID-19 pandemic began.

In March 2020, much of the country felt like it came to a standstill: People were not commuting to and from work or class, traveling to conferences, or going on vacations. All but the most essential businesses and manufacturers shut their doors, major events were canceled, and people stayed at home. 

There was one other big change: The air got better. 

Hornbostel Headshot Katherine Hornbostel (Credit: Ramon Cordero)

In Pittsburgh, the Group Against Smog and Pollution reported particulate matter concentrations were 23 percent lower than expected since stay-at-home orders took effect. Nitrogen dioxide pollution over northern China, Western Europe and the U.S. decreased by as much as 60 percent in early 2020 compared to the previous year.

Now, as businesses begin to reopen and life seeks a new normal, what will happen to those remarkable gains in air quality? And what can any of us do about it?

Katherine Hornbostel, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering, has a few suggestions. Her research focuses on carbon capture technology: novel ways to remove carbon dioxide, one of the biggest drivers of air pollution and climate change, from the air and water.

“The fact that our air has improved since the shutdown makes perfect sense. Some of the biggest contributors to air pollution—flying and driving—have declined dramatically,” said Hornbostel. “Companies shutting down also improved air quality because they stopped emitting carbon dioxide and other pollutants.” 

Though research suggests the air quality gains the COVID-19 pandemic brought with it are likely to dissipate as business resumes and factories work overtime to make up for lost time, Hornbostel notes that the air quality improvement proved that we can make a difference relatively quickly.

As the economy reopens, Hornbostel recommends three changes to help keep our air clean:

1. Remote Work

Global Workplace Analytics estimated that 56 percent of the U.S. workforce holds a job that is compatible with remote work. One of the most obvious ways to protect our air long-term, Hornbostel suggests, is for employers to allow their employees to continue working from home in the future.

“Remote work is an obvious way to cut emissions because people won’t have to drive so much. If companies adopt more flexible policies about employees working from home full- or part-time, it could make a big difference for the environment,” she said.

Since the stay-at-home order took effect in Allegheny County, for example, traffic on the Parkway East was reduced so much that air particulates were 13 percent below normal.

“Moving forward, I would love to see companies adopt a more flexible stance towards remote work. Not only will this help the environment, it will also prevent employee burnout and instill a culture of work-life balance.”

2. Find Ways Around Business Travel

People whose jobs rely on frequent travel have found new ways of operating during the COVID-19 pandemic. That is a good thing, Hornbostel said. The less flying we do, the better, as air travel is responsible for 2.5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

“I think a lot of people are discovering that we don’t really need to travel as much as we do,” she said. “Virtual conferences and meetings are often perfectly adequate substitutes for traveling to a remote site. I’d love to see more conferences and workshops go virtual or at least offer a virtual option for participants who don’t wish to travel.”

3. Explore Your Own Backyard

Cutting air travel’s large carbon footprint is a difficult task. However, this pandemic has proven that people are capable of getting by without getting on an airplane. Vacations to remote destinations used to be common for many Americans, but the pandemic forced us to make new plans and get creative with how we entertain ourselves and our children.

Like many, Hornbostel found herself working from home while homeschooling small children. 

“I think we were all sort of living a frantic life before this pandemic hit, and after being forced to slow down, a lot of people are realizing how exhausting and unsustainable their previous lifestyle was,” she said. “As I’ve reflected on this change of pace and observed my children’s response to it, I’ve come to realize how much we all benefit from spending more time together at home. My kids don’t need to go to Disney World to be happy; they can still find joy by going to the park down the street.

“Staying local can be fun. Staying home can be fun,” she said. “Do we really need to resume our frantic lives, or can we slow things down a bit?”

Maggie Pavlick, 6/30/2020

Contact: Maggie Pavlick