The Coronavirus pandemic – what are the consequences for air quality?

Media attention has been drawn to the notable drop in air pollutant levels across areas of the globe where populations have been ‘locked down’ to control the spread of the Coronavirus. It has been reported that measurements of particulate matter and NO2 levels in recent weeks have dropped by up to 50% in London, Cardiff, and Bristol, compared to pre-outbreak levels measured earlier this year.

European Environment Agency data has shown that this year, recordings of NO2 levels in Bergamo, Madrid and Lisbon during the week beginning 16th March, have been almost half of the levels recorded in the same week in 2019. Similarly, satellite imagery from NASA and the European Space Agency shows significant drops in NO2 levels over industrial areas of China.

Is there a positive amongst all the negative?

Air pollution is a chronic and serious issue in Europe and other industrial areas of the globe. In 2016, particulate matter was estimated to cause around 400,000 premature deaths in Europe alone. With air pollution being such a serious public health issue, should we see any positive in the recent drops in air pollutant levels?

Although this is tempting, this short-term decrease in air pollution should be put into context. Once economies begin to recover from the pandemic, the threats from air pollution will persist unless we implement long-term and sustainable measures to reduce air pollution. It has even been speculated that emissions of pollutants may spike in the period of recovery from the Coronavirus pandemic, following a similar pattern to the spike in emissions that followed the 2008 recession. Consequently, the short-term reductions in air pollutant levels that have come about as a result of our response to the Coronavirus, offer very little consolation for the devastating impacts of the virus.

The disruption to health, well-being, and the economy that has accompanied the fall in air pollution levels highlights the need to decouple economic health from environmental damage, and to build more sustainable economies. We must work to achieve sustained, lower air pollutant levels without the severe compromise on well-being and economic activity which have accompanied our measures to limit the impacts of the Coronavirus.

What changes can we make from here?

On a more optimistic note, the major disruption to our lives which we are experiencing could present an opportunity to implement positive change as we return to normality.

For example, having shown our capacity to adapt to working from home, it’s possible that businesses and organisations could expand provision for employees to work from home in the long term, or increase the flexibility for employees to alternate between working at home and in the office. The potential to reduce commuter traffic would be welcome in congested cities.

Our adaption to and recovery from the economic impacts of the pandemic are critical in determining how it will impact air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. The disruption that the virus has caused has the potential to distract away from efforts to reduce emissions, and the shocks to economies could reduce investment in renewable technologies. To avoid this, governments must consider and incentivise environmental protection in how they support economic recovery.

An additional incentive for improving air quality is that it could build populations’ resilience to respiratory diseases in the future. Air pollutants such as NO2 and particulate matter are strongly linked to lung and heart conditions. In addition to the direct impacts on health caused by such conditions, they may leave sufferers vulnerable to respiratory diseases such as the Coronavirus.

The rapid drops in air pollutant levels that have been recently observed in industrial areas of the globe, give an indication of the progress we could potentially make in improving air quality through measures such as expanding renewable energy production, investing in low emissions vehicles, improving cycling infrastructure, and reducing congestion on the roads. However, the long-term fate of air quality in the post-pandemic world remains to be seen.

Article author: Lizzie Hebbert