When lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic cut local nitrogen oxide emissions, the effect on ozone pollution was global and unexpectedly rapid.

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As the coronavirus pandemic slowed global commerce to a crawl in early 2020, emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) – which create ozone, a danger to human health and to climate – decreased 15% globally, with local reductions as high as 50%, according to a study led by scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. As a result of the lower NOx emissions, by June 2020, global ozone levels had dropped to a level that policymakers thought would take at least 15 years to reach by conventional means, such as regulations.

The study shows that innovative technologies and other solutions intended to decrease NOx locally have the potential to rapidly improve air quality and climate globally. It published today in Science Advances.

Ozone protects us from destructive solar radiation when it’s high above Earth in the stratosphere. Closer to the ground, though, it has other lasting impacts. Ozone at the surface was estimated to cause 365,000 deaths globally in 2019 by damaging the lungs of vulnerable people, such as young children and those with asthma. Similarly, it damages the breathing systems of plants – their ability to photosynthesize – reducing plant growth and crop yields. And at the top of the troposphere, it’s a potent greenhouse gas, increasing global temperatures.

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