Clear blue skies over Delhi, the most polluted capital city on Earth. Previously unheard birdsong ringing through stilled cities. And thriving numbers of endangered sea turtles taking to deserted beaches, from Florida to northeastern Brazil and Thailand, to lay their offspring. The coronavirus is certainly nothing to celebrate and has caused devastation across the globe. But the lockdown restrictions that keep so many of us safe indoors have given some wildlife the chance to stake its claim on the planet and experience a much-needed respite from relentless air pollution.
Worldwide reductions in air pollution
Lockdowns have led to momentous declines in transport and industrial emissions across the globe since the novel coronavirus outbreak began. First, the city of Wuhan, China, where the outbreak originated, saw nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels plummet as the government ordered what was, at the time, the largest quarantine in human history. In March, northern Italy and Spain followed with dramatically reduced levels of NO2 as some of Europe’s busiest cities shut down – including Milan, Madrid and Barcelona. Now, the UK has also begun to mimic these air quality improvements with drastically reduced levels of NO2 across some of its largest cities.
‘Because there’s been fewer vehicles around, the levels of NO2 in cities around the UK has dropped by varying levels, but between 30-45 per cent compared to the average levels of the same period from the past five years,’ explains Professor James Lee, a research scientist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS). This drop in NO2 emissions is for the most part due to the absence of cars and vehicles on the roads. Road travel in Britain has fallen by up to 73 per cent since lockdown began.
This graph shows fall in NO2 levels across 10 major UK cities during the lockdown period. Daily readings from air quality monitoring stations across the cities from 16 March - 28 April were compared with the averages taken from the same period over the past five years
As well as NO2, a report released by IQAir last week on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day found that PM2.5 (fine pollution particles with diameter smaller than 2.5 micrometers), has decreased in nine of the world’s 10 major cities compared to the same period last year. PM2.5 is one of the most harmful pollutants for human health as it can bypass natural defences, entering deep into the lungs and even the circulatory system and causing severe respiratory and cardiovascular problems. It is emitted during the combustion of fuels for uses such as power generation, domestic heating and in vehicle engines.
‘Thirty to forty thousand people have shortened life due to poor air quality in the UK … it knocks years off people’s lives with extended exposure,’ says Lee. Studies have also found that cities with high air pollution experience greater numbers of COVID-19 deaths. ‘Going forward, if we can keep the air clean – or make the air cleaner than it was – it will have a health benefit.’
Visibly cleaner air, along with the lifestyle changes that lockdown has brought for many of us, have amplified calls for governments to improve air quality and tackle the climate crisis. ‘We need to build a different world coming out of this crisis. We need to build a world that protects people and the planet,’ Dipti Bhatnagar, climate justice and energy programme coordinator for Friends of the Earth International, told Geographical. Following the pandemic, the organisation has called on governments to help power a just transition away from a fossil fuel driven economy (amongst other things) in its statement addressing COVID-19.
A cleaner future after lockdown
Last week, Milan became the first city to announce an ambitious new scheme to reduce air pollution following lockdown. The Strade Aperte plan aims to convert 35km of roads into cycle lanes and pedestrianised spaces throughout the city. Additionally, ‘...in the next decree there will be economic contributions for the purchase of bikes, assisted pedal bicycles and electric scooters,’ Pierfrancesco Maran, one of Milan’s deputy mayors, wrote in a social media post.
‘We certainly support the reduction of cars and building of bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly pathways. Of course, this should be coupled with access to affordable bicycles for all socio-economic classes so that it does not create barriers,’ Bhatnagar wrote in response.
Fewer vehicles and increased numbers of foot passengers and cyclists could have a multitude of benefits. Decreased NO2, PM2.5 and other forms of pollution will have major benefits to wildlife and public health; there are potential economic benefits of increased spending in local shops and businesses with increased foot passengers; and both cycling and walking are better for mental health than driving, research has found.
In Spain, Madrid officials are also discussing a future with fewer cars and more space for social distancing. One proposal states that restaurant terraces could use more of the street if there were fewer cars, while maintaining the same number of tables and chairs in order to give diners more room.
The time is now
As many countries now begin to show a slowdown in numbers of COVID-19 cases, and as they consider how to ease lockdown measures, the choices made will define what life after lockdown will look like. As well as government initiatives, individuals can play a large role in influencing future pollution levels.
A poll by the motoring organisation AA found that 22 per cent of nearly 20,000 respondents said they would drive less than they did before lockdown and 36 per cent plan to increase other modes of transport, such as walking or cycling. Additionally, as people have learned to use and adapt to home-office technologies, 11 per cent said they would work from home more and the AA predicts a permanent reduction in commuter numbers.
‘That is my hope,’ says NCAS’s Lee. ‘If anything good comes from this – and it may well – it’s that we end up with cleaner air in the cities because there’s less traffic.’