Global air pollution levels plummet amid the coronavirus pandemic

Thousands of lives have been saved in China since the coronavirus outbreak started, claim scientists, saying lockdowns have dramatically improved air quality.  

Across the globe countries are implemented measures to restrict public interactions including closing pubs, cancelling events and encouraging home working.

Satellite images from the European Space Agency and NASA show a dramatic reduction in the amount of harmful greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.

Researchers from Stanford University say in places like China the reduction in air pollution has led to fewer premature deaths from breathing toxic air.    

The improved air quality around the world isn’t likely to remain long term though, as scientists warn things will likely ‘return to normal levels’ when industry resumes.

To combat the rapidly spreading virus countries put areas and later the whole country on lockdown resulting in limited travel and industrial activity.

Limiting travel has led to a reduction in vehicle emissions and cutting the amount of industrial activity has led to a drop in the number of harmful particles put in the air.  

Satellite observations indicated steep falls in nitrogen dioxide emissions in the wake of strict lockdowns in Italy and China, the two worst affected countries so far 

Environmental resource economist Marshall Burke says there is a proven link between poor air quality and premature deaths linked to breathing that air.

‘With this in mind’, he said, ‘a natural – if admittedly strange – question is whether the lives saved from this reduction in pollution caused by economic disruption from COVID-19 exceeds the death toll from the virus itself.’

‘Even under very conservative assumptions, I think the answer is a clear ‘yes’.’

At just two months of reduction in pollution levels he says it likely saved the lives of 4,000 children under five and 73,000 adults over 70 in China alone.

‘That’s significantly more than the current global death toll from the virus itself.’  

He said the average person loses about three years of their life due to air pollution – similar to the impact of tobacco smoking and higher than Malaria. 

Cutting pollution levels longer term will also help reduce the number of deaths in any future pandemic, according to Sara De Matteis from Cagliari University, Italy. 

‘Patients with chronic lung and heart conditions caused or worsened by long-term exposure to air pollution are less able to fight off lung infections and more likely to die. This is likely also the case for Covid-19,’ she told the Guardian. 

‘By lowering air pollution levels we can help the most vulnerable in their fight against this and any possible future pandemics.’ 

Burke said it was incorrect and foolhardy to suggest that pandemics are ‘good for health’ and that isn’t what he is saying.

He said: ‘The calculation is perhaps a useful reminder of the often-hidden health consequences of the status quo, ie, the substantial costs that our current way of doing things exacts on our health and livelihoods.’

Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air in Helsinki, Finland said nitrogen dioxide levels were down by 35 per cent over China during the shutdown compared to the same period in 2019. 

‘Most factories have been closed or running at low capacity, either because of restrictions on operation or because employees haven’t been able to return from holidays, or because of lack of demand,’ Myllyvirta told Business Insider.

‘If the government holds onto the GDP growth target for the year, that could mean launching a massive construction program to prop up GDP,’ he said. ‘This is what happened after the global financial crisis in 2009.’  

 Maria Castellina, spokesperson for Friends of the Earth, said coronavirus is a reminder that we are ‘all part of one global community’ and that we ‘need to cooperate to solve global problems’. 

‘But this is a time that can also bring out in the best in us: people helping older neighbours, anyone self-isolating to protect others, and rapidly developing technology showing that many of us can work and live in completely different ways.

‘It is this attitude of kindness, resilience and ability to adapt, that we should use to inform other global crises. 

‘Exceptional circumstances like these remind us just how important our health is, yet 4.2 million premature deaths globally are linked to air pollution. 

‘Imagine what we could do if we didn’t return completely to business-as-usual but kept people’s health and wellbeing front and centre in decision-making.’ 

Unfortunately this improved air quality isn’t expected to last – with scientists predicting a return to normal levels as soon as the crisis is over.

‘When the Chinese economy does recover, they are likely to see an increase in emissions in the short term to sort of make up for lost time, in terms of production,’ climate scientist Zeke Hausfather told Wired.

‘Broadly speaking, the only real times we’ve seen large emission reductions globally in the past few decades is during major recessions,’ says Hausfather. 

‘But even then, the effects are often smaller than you think. It generally doesn’t lead to any sort of systematic change.’ 

Air quality researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Fei Liu said: ‘This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event.’ 

Dramatic footage from the ESA Copernicus satellite shared on Friday showed a ‘notable drop’ in air pollution over Italy after the coronavirus lockdown. 

ESA’s Claus Zehner, Sentinel-5P mission manager, said, ‘The decline in nitrogen dioxide emissions over the Po Valley in northern Italy is particularly evident.

‘Although there could be slight variations in the data due to cloud cover and changing weather, we are very confident that the reduction in emissions that we can see, coincides with the lockdown in Italy causing less traffic and industrial activities.’

This came after the country closed bars, pubs, restaurants and other venues in a bid to stop people spreading the virus – resulting in a reduction in traffic, air and industrial pollution. 

The UK also saw a drop in air pollution levels, although it is too soon into the isolation process to get exact figures for the whole country, according to experts. 

Readings for nitrogen dioxide – a harmful greenhouse gas – across London were lower on Sunday than on Monday for the first time.

The Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs reported that air pollution levels were ‘low’ across the country today and don’t expect that to change. 

On Monday Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged people to stay home and avoid all but essential travel and contact with other people.

According to EU air quality monitoring website AirQualityNow.eu – London saw a drop from 96 on Sunday to just 20 on Monday. The figure for Monday would normally be higher than the weekend rate. 

The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) observed a decrease of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) for February relative to the previous three years of between 20 and 30 per cent, Copernicus said in a statement.

PM2.5 is one of the most important air pollutants regarding health impacts according to the World Health Organization.   

Nitrogen dioxide is a noxious gas which is released during fuel combustion and emitted by cars, power plants and industrial facilities. 

It forms when fossil fuels such as coal, gas or diesel are burned at high temperatures and can cause a range of harmful effects on the lungs including increased inflammation of the airways and a greater risk of asthma attacks. 

A global drop in the number of flights is also having an impact on air pollution. 

‘Based economic growth forecasts the impact of the coronavirus could significantly reduce global CO2 emissions,’ said Professor Ian Colbeck, of the University of Essex.

‘Figures from China suggest a 25 per cent reduction in energy use and emissions. 

‘Air travel emissions are a significant contributor to climate change so expect this figure to drop as more and more flights are cancelled.’ 

At an individual level the amount of road traffic could reduce significantly, with companies allowing staff to continue to work from home after the crisis. 

‘It’s quite possible that once things revert back to pre-virus conditions that companies and their staff may have seen the benefits of working from home and so the actual number of commuters may reduce,’ said Professor Colbeck.    

Glen Peters, Research Director for the Centre for International Climate Environment Research agrees, saying it could lead to major changes. 

‘Based on new projections for economic growth in 2020, we suggest the impact of the coronavirus might significantly curb global emissions,’ he said in an article for the academic website The Conversation.

The biggest barrier to long term change will be the rapidly dropping price of oil.

The International Energy Agency had already predicted oil use would drop in 2020, and this was before an oil price war emerged between Saudi Arabia and Russia. 

Burke said the indirect impacts of the virus are probably significantly higher than we know and any benefits from air pollution would be dominated by the direct and indirect costs of the virus.

He told the Guardian this includes ‘the health effects of lost income and the morbidity/mortality costs of non-Covid health problems going untreated.’

Sascha Marschang, the acting secretary general of the European Public Health Alliance, told the Guardian big decisions were needed after the crisis ends.

‘Policymakers should speed up measures to get dirty vehicles off our roads.

‘Science tells us that epidemics like Covid-19 will occur with increasing frequency. So cleaning up the streets is a basic investment for a healthier future.’ 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *