A global future with less pollution – a silver lining of the Coronavirus pandemic?April 21st 2020
While COVID-19 lockdown restrictions are affecting us all in our daily lives, our new normal is starting to positively influence the environment thanks to drastic reductions in polluting travel. It allows us a tantalising glimpse at the prospect of what our environmental future could be.
Earlier this year during its own strict lockdown phase, we saw evidence of China’s atmospheric changes, while in tourist hotspots like Venice, cleaner canals and waterways were being reported as pollutants were slashed. Now, the UK is beginning to see the positive impact of our current enforced, protective lifestyle too.
China saw an enormous change in pollution levels during its three-month COVID-19 lockdown period. The European Space Agency’s Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite estimates that nitrogen dioxide levels dropped by up to 40%, and particulate matter 20-30%. Image: NASA.
Just two weeks into the UK’s lockdown, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels are reported to be down 60% on the same period last year, with reduced traffic on our roads cited as being the significant factor in this change. Vehicles are renowned for being a chief pollution-producer, and the effects of their pollution are worsened by congested traffic. They produce carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and particulate matter (PM).
In key urban pollution hotspots in the UK, the improvement between this year’s lockdown period and the same time last year is stark. Image: BBC
- CO stops oxygen from getting to the brain, heart, and other vital organs effectively.
- NOx can reduce lung function, and NO2 reacts with other chemicals in the air to form particulate matter (also known as particle pollution).
- PM (which is emitted significantly from diesel vehicles) can be so fine it gets deep into your lungs, may enter your bloodstream, and is strongly associated with respiratory and cardiovascular issues.
- Diesel cars are the single biggest contributor to our NOx levels, responsible for 41% of emissions from road transport, and 75% of traffic congestion is caused by excess traffic1
The current global circumstances are incredibly challenging, but at the same time these necessary restrictions have enabled us to monitor (and experience first-hand) the positive impacts on air quality that removing vehicles from our roads en masse can achieve.
These impacts have been recorded after only two weeks of lockdown measures, and they open a serious question about our continued over-reliance on polluting vehicles for everyday life. Now we must ask ourselves: can we embrace one of the few silver linings that COVID-19 lockdown measures have provided us by continuing to modify our travel behaviour long after the pandemic has passed?
It would be easy to return to our old behaviours – but why not use the evidence as a catalyst for real, positive change?
UK air quality statistics
- Every school in London is over the WHO health limit for pollution.2
- People in the UK are 64 times as likely to die as a result of air pollution as those in Sweden, and twice as likely as those in the US. 1
- Pollution causes 40,000 to 50,000 early deaths a year. 1
Of course, life isn’t simple and instant change is unlikely. We can’t all afford to banish all our cars immediately, while most of our lifestyles currently rely upon the internal combustion engine in some form to support us and our loved ones, even now in COVID-19 lockdown.
But, with clear evidence emerging of the positive environmental impacts that our restrictions are having in the UK and across the globe, the most important factor is that we recognise it now so that we can make a concerted effort to make changes for the long term, together.
1. Greener Journeys Report (2017).
2. The Times (2019).
3. Micromobility Potential In the US, UK & Germany, Intrix (2019).
The evidence shows that we need to embrace positive changes that will help us lead cleaner, healthier lives. But to do that we also need the law on our side to help us where possible.
Pure Electric is campaigning to see e-scooters made legal as quickly as possible, as a key, untapped method of offering a new form of cleaner urban transport alongside e-bikes. By signing, you can show your support for the cause to see real, meaningful change as we look to improve the environment we live in.