Image: NASA Earth Observatory

Decreasing air pollution during the COVID-19 epidemic – the other side of the quarantine

While most people were predominantly concerned with the detrimental health and economic effects of the COVID-19 crisis that engulfed the world in the past four months, there are silver linings to the emergency situation that could easily have been missed in the chaos. Dara Sapundzhieva from the American College of Sofia makes an interesting overview of one such positive development – the decrease of air pollution and specifically of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution due to the decrease of economic activity and travel.

 

The World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the new COVID-19 virus as pandemic on March 11, 2020. Since then, the virus has affected around 170 countries, leading to approximately 2 000 000 confirmed cases worldwide as of beginning of May. In order to prevent the spreading of the virus, the countries across the world immediately implemented strict measures such as closing borders and applying social distancing requirements. These measures inevitably caused economic downturn, with many citizens remaining at home and factories shutting down.

 

This situation may seem terrifying, but there is a curious upside to the global lockdown: air pollution is decreasing. Visual materials posted on the official website of the European Space Agency (ESA) showcase the consequences of mass isolation. The Copernicus Sentinel-5P Precursor satellite took photos above Northern Italy (from 1 January 2020 until 11 March 2020) and Eastern China (from 20 December 2019 until 16 March 2020) using a 10-day moving average, recording the fluctuation of the nitrogen dioxide concentrations. It captured the remarkable drop of the levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over significant areas across China and Europe, caused by the decrease of road and air transport, and the closure of many enterprises.

The European Environmental Agency (EEA) also measured the reduction of nitrogen dioxide emissions and revealed that in Milan the average concentrations of NO2 for the past four weeks have been at least 24 % lower than the first few weeks of 2020. In another Italian city hard hit by the virus, Bergamo, there has been a constant decline of NO2 pollution over the past four weeks – during the week of 16-22 March, it was 47 % lower than in the same week in 2019. In Rome, the average NO2 concentrations for the past four weeks were 26-35 % lower than for the same weeks in 2019.

Meanwhile, the reduction of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in China, which is said to be one of the most prominent air pollutants, is between 20-30% over the surface of the affected areas, according to the Atmosphere Monitoring Service (AMS).

 

With air pollution on the decline, it is expected that the chances of developing a respiratory illness would now drop for many people, which would have been prone to COVID-19, The novel strain of the Coronavirus is known for affecting the respiratory system and harming people with previous health complications. According to the European Environmental Agency “a number of health authorities have warned that those citizens with certain pre-existing conditions, such as respiratory illnesses, may have an increased vulnerability to COVID-19.  However, at present it is not clear whether ongoing exposure to air pollution might worsen the condition of those infected by the virus”.

 

These changes in the condition of the environment have sparked discussions among eco activist groups about ways to keep the levels of NO2 low.

 

sCOOL Media reaches out to two representatives of the environmental NGO Greenpeace Bulgaria , Denitza Petrova and Lora Fuchedzhieva, to ask them about the implications of the drop of NO2 levels over the last month.

 

|There is a huge decline in the global emissions caused by human activity which are responsible for climate change. However, this decline will not have a permanent effect, especially when economies start recovering from the virus’s effect and are trying to regain any losses,” warned Denitza Petrova.

 

To her, keeping nitrogen dioxide levels low would require systemic change rather than isolated, albeit global incidents like the pandemic.“In order to battle climate change and keep emissions of pollutants low, we need a systematic change, not a rapid one, if I could so describe the changes due to the Coronavirus pandemic. We need to revise what our society looks like, how it works, and what are our energy resources,” she said.

 

Lora Fuchedzhieva, a young member of the Greenpeace Bulgaria team who is in charge of organising environmental activities and engaging young people with the climate change movement had a practical proposal on how the crisis could be used to keep air pollution levels low.

 

“A possible solution is expected to be the decentralisation of the energy system and to star using more renewable energy. Households are completely capable of (or partially) producing the energy they need in their everyday life”, she says, “However, it is crucial to cease the production and usage of fossil fuels as soon as possible and replace them with renewable energy sources.”

 

Young environmental activists see a justification of their cause in the drop of air pollution levels during the crisis. sCOOL Media spoke to Yana Peeva, the president of  “Fridays For Future” Club at the American College of Sofia, who think that even sceptics of the human role in global warming would have to admit people contribute to the abnormal rise of temperatures worldwide.

 

“Here I want to make it clear that these positive changes are a result of the lockdown, not the pandemic. The disease breakout has no positive impacts, neither for humanity, nor for the environment. I think there is an important lesson we need to learn from this lockdown: we are part of this environment, whether we want it or not,” she said.

 

What Yana is interested in is what governments should do in order to keep the low levels of nitrogen dioxide. “If governments focus on establishing more autonomous production factories, instead of moving their entire production abroad because of cheaper workforce, we could keep the levels of these pollutants relatively low. Through modern technology we can produce almost everything everywhere and in good quality”, Yana says, adding that individuals need to consider making their households “greener”.  “There are lots of ways we can do that, we should just remain open-minded and look around us for inspiration,” the young activist concludes.