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The coronavirus pandemic could have unexpected environmental effects

April 30, 2020, 10:29 AM UTC

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Good morning. David Meyer here in Berlin, filling in for Alan.

There’s a baffling array of predictions out there about how the COVID-19 pandemic might change this or that aspect of our existence, and, as this Inc. essay points out, it’s good to be skeptical—crisis pundits so often get these things wrong.

That said, there’s an interesting thread of air-pollution research taking place in the context of the pandemic crisis. It could just lead to one of those drastic post-pandemic changes.

As Fortune reported last week, drastic drops in road and air traffic, and in industrial activity, are leading to dramatic if temporary improvements in air quality. And, as a new study from Europe’s Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air suggests, this is having a direct impact on European people’s lives: the organization estimates that the coronavirus lockdown has already resulted in 11,000 fewer air-pollution-related deaths, as well as 6,000 fewer cases of child asthma, 600 fewer preterm births, 1.900 fewer asthma-related emergency room visits—and 1.3 million fewer days of work absence.

Of course, in the grand scheme of things this needs to be weighed against the health impacts of the lockdown itself—in terms of stress, lack of exercise, reduced income. But there’s more.

In hard-hit countries such as the U.S., the U.K. and Italy, officials and researchers are increasingly noting a disturbing phenomenon of COVID-19 death rates being higher in places that—until the crisis hit—had high levels of dangerous pollution particles in the air.

The implication appears to be that air pollution weakens our defenses against a virus such as SARS-CoV-2. We already knew that air pollution is linked with chronic respiratory disease, cancer, cardiovascular disease and so on—and people with these conditions are particularly susceptible to COVID-19.

Of course, this research is at a very early stage and we need to be cautious about drawing overt causal links. But if the links really are there, then, as WHO public health director Maria Neira told the Financial Times: “The day we take off these masks, we need to breathe clean air, no way will we accept the level of pollution that we had before…We have to use the pandemic to create a healthier society—one that is better prepared for emergencies.”

Time will tell if the coronavirus crisis ends up accelerating the drive away from fossil fuels. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday delighted environmental campaigners by insisting that coronavirus-related economic stimulus programs be strongly linked to climate protection. “The restart can lead to a healthier and more resilient world for everyone,” added U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, at the virtual summit where they were speaking.

Could a green recovery be a chance to kill two birds with one stone? More news below.

David Meyer
@superglaze

david.meyer@fortune.com

TOP NEWS

Mixed markets

Global stocks rose this morning following yesterday's news about the Federal Reserve's pledge to use "its full range of tools to support the U.S. economy in this challenging time," and about Gilead Sciences' remdesivir COVID-19 treatment achieving a positive result in a clinical trial. The Nikkei rose 2.1% and the Shanghai Composite 1.3%. In Europe, the Stoxx 600 was flat at the time of writing, but U.S. futures look set for a modest rise. P.S., Market researcher James Bianco thinks this month's rally will end in tears. Wall Street Journal

Facebook results

Investors were happy with Facebook's earnings report yesterday, which included an expectation-beating user count of 2.6 billion—revenues, at $17.74 billion, also beat expectations. Shares popped 10%. Facebook's Q1 ad revenues were also up 17% year-on-year but the company had an unsurprisingly stark warning about Q2 on that front, noting "a significant reduction in the demand for advertising, as well as a related decline in the pricing of our ads, over the last three weeks of the first quarter of 2020." Fortune

Oil cuts

Norway has for the first time in almost two decades joined international efforts to cut oil production, in the context of the historic oversupply and price plunge that is taking place. Europe's biggest oil producer said it would cut production by 250,000 barrels a day in June and 134,000 barrels in H2. Meanwhile, Shell has cut its dividend for the first time since World War II, blaming "the risk of a prolonged period of economic uncertainty, weaker commodity prices, higher volatility and uncertain demand outlook." Bloomberg

Saving airlines

EU member states seem set to force the European Commission to temporarily amend air-passenger-rights legislation, so people can't claim cash refunds for flights that have been cancelled due to the pandemic—instead, they would get vouchers. The move would be part of a wider effort to keep Europe's airlines alive, as the sector faces a catastrophic year that could easily kill many of them off. Politico

AROUND THE WATER COOLER

Eurozone economy

Newly-released data shows a 3.8% shrinkage in Q1 economic output across the Eurozone, when compared to the previous three months (when the eurozone economy grew by 0.1%). That's 0.3% more than the expectations of economists polled by Reuters, and a record quarterly decline. However, the slowdown in inflation was less than expected. Reuters

Elon rants

Elon Musk used an investor call to describe coronavirus stay-at-home orders as "fascist" and demand that the authorities "give people back their god damn freedom." Yes, an investor call—and one that otherwise was quite positive, given strong quarterly numbers. But he did have a business-related point to make: "The extension of shelter-in-place, or as I would say forcibly imprisoning people against their constitutional rights…it will cause great harm not just to Tesla, but to many companies. While Tesla will weather the storm, other companies will not." Fortune

Zoom numbers

Does Zoom really have 300 million daily active users now, as it claimed in a blog post earlier this month? Probably not. As eagle eyes at The Verge noted, booming Zoom quietly edited that post to delete the reference, and to now claim that there are "300 million daily Zoom meeting participants." If you have multiple Zoom meetings in a day, your attendance is counted multiple times. The Verge

PPP chaos

Fortune's Anne Sraders provides a fascinating but grim look at the chaotic rollout of the U.S. Small Business Administration's Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), describing "a picture of a well-intentioned program with a multitude of unintended consequences that has left many small businesses—those same ones initially targeted to receive much-needed help—still struggling to get lifeline funds." Fortune

This edition of CEO Daily was edited by David Meyer.