From an uncertain and challenging time, brought about by a highly infectious disease that has dramatically transformed all of our lives and has been devastating for many who have lost loved ones, comes a glimmer of hope. Air pollution has fallen and nature is bursting into life across the globe.
With the majority of us staying at home and traveling less, in response to government guidelines over the coronavirus outbreak, traffic on the roads has significantly reduced and cities are deserted. This has seen a substantial improvement in air quality and the restoration of wildlife.
Since the UK entered lockdown, in an effort to contain the virus by restricting the movement of people, new data shows there has been between a 30 to 50 per cent reduction in nitrogen dioxide and small particulates across most cities.
National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) research fellow and professor atmospheric chemistry, James Lee says: ‘Our daily lives, commutes to work and all sorts of fossil fuel burning has caused the air in our cities to not be as clean as we would like.’
He explains two of the main air pollutants – nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter – have rapidly fallen in the UK because the reduction of transport has been so stark. Once emission rates have lowered, says James, the levels of these pollutants drop very quickly unlike greenhouse gases such as CO2 which can stay in the atmosphere for decades.
‘If you compare the month of March on previous years — [bearing in mind] one of the biggest drivers of air pollution is the weather — the air is quite a bit cleaner this year.
‘If there is one benefit [from this pandemic], it is that,’ adds James.
Misty Sunset on Wuhan. Image credit: simon.on.flickr/Visual Hunt
According to China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment, between January and March there was an 84.5% increase in days with good air quality in 337 cities.
Meanwhile, the canals are coming back to life in Venice, Italy. After being emptied of motorboat taxis, tourist boats and other transport, shoals of tiny fish, scuttling crabs and multicoloured plant-life have been spotted in the now clear blue waterways.
Further, in Chicago, animals have been granted more freedom. While Shedd Aquarium is closed, a pair of rockhopper penguins were given the opportunity to explore spaces usually denied to them, and they even waddled past the reception desk.
‘The Covid-19 outbreak and associated lockdown is giving us a window into the future,’ James continues.
‘This publicity of air quality and nature [healing] shows people that we can do more under normal circumstances to make the environment better. In the next year to 18 months, I suspect we may see levels of traffic lower than we would’ve done otherwise because people will realise things can be done without having to travel so much.
‘When things get back to normal and the virus outbreak passes, there might be an initial spike [in traffic], but people might think about working from home more or not traveling to meetings in their cars and having them remotely.
‘Employers will probably also have to consider that people can work from home. Obviously not with every job, but maybe the insistence that everyone is in the office all the time won’t wash anymore.
'If everybody worked from home one day a week, it would make a big difference,’ claims James.
James hopes the current situation will encourage everyone to consider the environment more in their daily decision making in the future.
‘The whole isolation experience is just weird for everybody,’ he says, ‘I think that people can use this experience as a benefit going forward; they may realise we can make a difference and it’s not as hard as we thought it was to not use the car less or use shopping delivery.'
He urges us, when our lives return to normal, to think about the necessity of our car journeys and to think back to the experience of the lockdown.
‘Maybe there has to be a new normal in all areas of life, but from an air pollution perspective, drive less, make the roads less busy, make our air quality better and improve quality of life.’
Plans to tackle climate change in the UK have already been in place for a while. Last year, London introduced an Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) whereby vehicles have to meet new, tighter emission standards or pay a daily charge to be able to travel in the city. The government also has a longer term plan to remove the sale of new petrol, diesel or hybrid cars by 2035, at the latest, to achieve its target of net zero emissions by 2050.
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