Air Pollution Plummets As China, Europe, New York Go On COVID-19 Lockdown

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The European Environmental Agency (EEA) has confirmed NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) data that shows a rapid, dramatic reduction in air pollution over those areas most affected by the COVID-19 lockdowns. How dramatic? Try this: some major cities have seen NOS and CO2 levels drop by half … in less than a week. (!?)

As private and commercial traffic drops due to all the smart people staying home, it should come as no surprise that air quality is improving, but the amount that it’s improving and the speed at which it’s improving are still something to marvel at. Researchers in New York told the BBC that their early results showed carbon monoxide emissions been reduced by nearly 50% compared with the year prior. And that’s with traffic down “only” about 35%. “New York has had exceptionally high carbon monoxide numbers for the last year and a half,” explains Professor Róisín Commane, of Columbia University, who carried out the NY air study. “And this is the cleanest I have ever seen (the air). It’s less than half of what we normally see in March.”

In China, where the lockdowns have been in effect the longest, the situation is even more dramatic than in NY.

NASA Images of Air Pollution in China

china coronavirus air pollution
Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using modified Copernicus Sentinel 5P data processed by the European Space Agency.

As these images released by NASA earlier this month showed, the air above most of China’s major population centers has reduced dramatically since January, when the government’s lockdowns first began in earnest. What’s more, “scientists say that by May, when CO2 emissions are at their peak thanks to the decomposition of leaves, the levels recorded might be the lowest since the financial crisis over a decade ago,” according to this article from the BBC.

I mean, that’s just wild. It wasn’t all that long ago that we were all writing articles about China’s air pollution being so bad it was like a dystopian comedy where you could only see the sun by looking at screens placed throughout the city. That’s not even a joke — here’s a photo from 2014 showing exactly that!

Beijing Air Pollution in 2014

Over in Europe, they’re seeing the same thing — especially over Italy, whose manufacturing centers were hit hard by the COVID-19 outbreak. “The EEA’s data show an accurate picture of the drop in air pollution, especially due to reduced traffic in cities,” explains Hans Bruyninckx, Executive Director of the EEA. It’s worth noting, though, that Bruynickx doesn’t see this drop in pollutants as some kind of “silver lining” to all the horror. Indeed, he seems to think the drop won’t last. “… Addressing long-term air quality problems requires ambitious policies and forward-looking investments. As such, the current crisis and its multiple impacts on our society work against what we are trying to achieve, which is a just and well-managed transition towards a resilient and sustainable society.”

Indeed, there are several people voicing concerns that economic and political pressures to “get up to speed” could cause levels could rise rapidly after the worst of the pandemic passes. That seems to be a concern held by Professor Corinne Le Quéré from the University of East Anglia, who seems to think we may not yet see a year-over-year reduction in greenhouse gas and other harmful emissions. “It will depend on how long the pandemic lasts, and how widespread the slowdown is in the economy particularly in the US. But most likely I think we will see something in the global emissions this year,” she says. “If it lasts another three or four months, certainly we could see some reduction.”

Here’s hoping, then, that we can all learn a bit about “non-essential” travel and try to keep what little positive news we’re getting these days going, you know? Maybe that’s just me being hopeful and naive– what about you guys? Is this a real silver lining, or will the bargain-basement price of oil make the coal and diesel start burning double time once this is all over? Check out some of the notes supplied by the EEA, below, then let us know what you think in the comments section at the bottom of the page.

ESA Image of NOx Levels Over Italy

Image by European Space Agency (ESA)

The EEA’s data for recent weeks show how concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a pollutant mainly emitted by road transport, have decreased in many Italian cities. For example:

    • In Milan, average concentrations of NO2 for the past four weeks have been at least 24 % lower than four weeks earlier this year. The average concentration during the week of 16-22 March was 21 % lower than for the same week in 2019.

    • In Bergamo, there has been a constant decline in NO2 pollution over the past four weeks. The average concentration during the week of 16-22 March was 47 % lower than for the same week in 2019.

    • In Rome, average NO2 concentrations for the past four weeks were 26-35 % lower than for the same weeks in 2019.

Similar trends can be seen in other European cities where lockdown measures have been implemented during the week of 16-22 March.

    • In Barcelona, average NO2 levels went down by 40 % from one week to the next. Compared with the same week in 2019, the reduction was 55 %.

    • In Madrid, average NO2 levels went down by 56 % from one week to the next. Compared with the same week in 2019, the reduction was 41 %.

    • In Lisbon, average NO2 levels went down by 40 % from one week to the next. Compared with the same week in 2019, the reduction was 51 %.

Sources | Images: NASA, ESA, via the BBC and the EEA; TakePart.

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