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Preliminary studies have identified a positive correlation between COVID-19-related mortalities and air pollution. There is also a plausible association of airborne particles assisting the viral spread. How does air pollution as an environmental health hazard contribute to the spread of COVID-19 in societies ? And how does it play a role in further affecting human health in this pandemic?

It has been widely established that air pollution compromises the respiratory system. According to the WHO, ambient air pollution causes 4.2 million premature deaths annually. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists have discovered that excess pressure may be exerted on the patient’s respiratory system due to air pollution.  

How Air Pollution as an Environmental Health Hazard Could Contribute to the Spread of COVID-19

A previous ecological study conducted during the SARS pandemic of 2003 that affected parts of China, Hong Kong and Canada discovered a positive correlation between SARS-related deaths and ambient air pollution in both short-term and long-term exposure. Given the close relationship and similarities in the symptoms of COVID-19 and SARS, it is anticipated that a similar observation may be found in the COVID-19 pandemic. This provides an indication of how air pollution may affect a person infected with COVID-19. 

pre-print (i.e. studies awaiting peer-review) ecological study from Harvard University investigates whether long-term average exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is associated with an increased risk of COVID-19 death in the US. The study found that even a small increase of 1 μg/m3 in PM2.5 levels was associated with an 8% increase in COVID-19-related fatality.

Some scholars however, argue that an ecological study cannot be regarded as epidemiology due to ecological bias (i.e. lack of individual-level data), therefore it is unable to establish a cause-and-effect relationship. There are also multiple factors involved that may affect the results, for example, the temporal difference of the virus outbreak among the individual county, and the intervention time of the county to adopt physical distancing policies. Consequently, the study may overestimate the risk of COVID-19-related deaths owing to air pollution.     

This positive correlation between increased death rates due to COVID-19 and air pollution has also been observed in Italy. Northern Italy is one of the most polluted areas in Europe, where a higher level of mortality related to the COVID-19 virus was discovered. A study concluded that the high air pollution loading could be a co-factor causing the high fatality rate due to the COVID-19 infection.  

Prior exposure to air pollution may aggravate the health impacts of COVID-19 and increase the risk of death by suppressing immunity. A systematic review has identified that people with prior chronic diseases like hypertension, diabetes, respiratory system disease and cardiovascular disease could be more vulnerable to COVID-19 by triggering pro-inflammatory responses and causing immunity impairment.      

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Does Air Pollution Affect the Viral Spread of COVID-19?

It is believed that the main route of transmission of the virus is through human respiratory droplets and direct contact, according to the Joint Mission report from China in late February. Yet, it has also been hypothesised that the COVID-19 virus can be transmitted by particulate matter (PM) and aerosols. A preliminary experimental analysis was conducted which identified the gene of COVID-19 in an ambient PM sample in Italy, and concluded that PM may potentially act as a transporter of the virus, although the virulence of COVID-19 remains unknown (i.e. vitality of the virus). Scientists also suggest that PM may serve as an early indicator of the epidemic recurrence by identifying the virus genome in PM. 

Current Air Quality Improvement From Lockdowns

Many countries have been locked down to maintain physical distancing among citizens to slow down the viral spread of COVID-19. The lockdowns have not only helped to reduce viral transmission but also the air pollution. A preprint study in China estimated that the lockdown mitigated a quarter of PM2.5 emissions and improved the Air Quality Index, helping prevent monthly premature deaths of 24 000 to 36 000 people.

The NO2 level also dropped dramatically after the lockdown (NO2 irritates human airways and impairs immunity to lung infections). Another study from China estimated that the improved NO2 levels from January to March due to the imposed lockdowns helped prevent more than 8,000 NO2 -related deaths, 65% of which are due to cardiovascular disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). 

Fossil fuel burning is one of the major anthropogenic sources of air pollution. A study modelled that emissions from fossil fuel combustion is one of the major causes of air pollution, which contributes to 65% of additional mortality due to the exposure. Given that renewable energy is cleaner than fossil fuel burning, a transition to renewable energy is essential to mitigate the climate crisis.    

The plausible linkage between air pollution and viral spread still requires more thorough studies to confirm the hypothesis. Air pollution, on the other hand, has long been proving its harmful effect on human health and causes a burden on healthcare systems. The preliminary studies that have shown a possible link between air pollution exposure and COVID-19 related deaths, no matter how small, should be an indication that air pollution needs to be urgently tackled. A global transition to cleaner energy will help safeguard the health of humanity and prevent these unnecessary deaths.

Local governments should focus on mitigating air pollution to address the urgent issue of deaths caused by COVID-19, rather than aspire towards eliminating air pollution altogether. The positive effects of localised lockdown regulations in alleviating air pollution can be a blueprint towards this end. Without invoking a national mandate, discriminative regulations should be introduced that focus on areas more severely affected by COVID-19 or air pollution. Measures could include designating times for motor vehicle use, reducing smoke from agricultural and waste burning around cities, and pausing activities which create dust plumes such as construction while expanding public sanitation services and related employment to keep streets cleaner. 

National air pollution action plans devised by China have seen significant reductions in pollution levels and associated health risks.

China has lifted millions out of poverty like no other country on the planet. The price of that economic progress is demonstrated in the air pollution that has caused a public health crisis, killing more than 1.1 million people every year. It has also proved costly for the nation as the economy suffers an annual loss of $37 billion due to pollution-induced crop failure. 

China Air Pollution Solutions

After Beijing’s ‘airpocalypse’ sparked a mass outpouring of anger and frustration among citizens, China set out to clean up the air quality of its cities. The government prohibited new coal-fired power plants and shut down a number of old plants in the most polluted regions including city clusters of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei and the Pearl and Yangtze Deltas. Large cities like Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou restricted the number of cars on the road and started introducing all-electric bus fleets. The country reduced its iron-and steel-making capacity and shut down coal mines.  

The government also introduced aggressive afforestation and reforestation programmes like the Great Green Wall and planted more than 35 billion trees across 12 provinces. With investments of over $100 billion in such programmes, China’s forestry expenditure per hectare exceeded that of the US and Europe and became three times higher than the global average.

The Air Pollution Action Plan released in September 2013 became China’s most influential environmental policy. It helped the nation to make significant improvements in its air quality between 2013 and 2017, reducing PM2.5 levels (atmospheric particulate matter) by 33% in Beijing and 15% in the Pearl River Delta. In Beijing, this meant reducing PM2.5 levels from 89.5µg/m³ (micrograms per cubic metre) down to 60. The city achieved an annual average PM2.5 level of 58µg/m³– a drop of 35%.

But even so, no cities reached the World Health Organization’s recommended annual average PM2.5 level of 10µg/m³. And as of the end of 2017, only 107 of China’s 338 cities of prefectural level or higher had reached the WHO’s interim standard of 35µg/m³.

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China air pollution
China declared war on smog and launched a five-year national air quality action plan in 2013.

As part of the second phase of its battle against air pollution, in 2018, China introduced its Three-year Action Plan for Winning the Blue Sky War.

While the 2013 Action Plan only set PM2.5 level targets for the city clusters of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei and the Pearl and Yangtze Deltas, the new three-year Action Plan applies to all the cities in China. It mandates at least an 18% reduction in PM2.5 levels on a 2015 baseline in as many as 231 cities that have not yet reached the government standard- an average of 35µg/m³.

The previous plan had not addressed a primary pollutant that made the air deadly in many cities: ground-level ozone- highly irritating gas created by volatile organic compounds (VOCs) reacting with nitrogen oxides released from vehicles. Although ozone in the upper atmosphere protects the Earth by blocking solar radiation, it is extremely toxic in the troposphere and could cause asthma and respiratory tract infections among residents. The new action plan focuses more on ozone pollution as it adds targets for both VOCs and nitrogen oxides: emissions reductions of 10% and 15%, respectively, by 2020. 

The air quality over major Chinese cities has improved as of the beginning of 2020, a byproduct of the Covid-19 pandemic that originated in Wuhan in the Hubei Province that saw the nation embark on the largest lockdown measures in the world. A drop in industrial and economic activities resulted in reduced greenhouse gas emissions and improved air quality in Wuhan over the Chinese New Year, as well as Beijing, Shanghai and the Yangtze River Delta region. However, emissions will no doubt rise again once the pandemic subsides.

Air pollution levels in major cities in China at the turn of this century were almost exactly at the level of London at the height of the Industrial Revolution in 1890. But China cleaned up its air twice as fast as the United Kingdom did after the Great Smog of postwar London killed 8 000 people.

Recent research suggests that China’s fight against air pollution has laid the foundations for extraordinary gains in the country’s life expectancy. The average citizen can now expect to live 2.4 years longer on average if the declines in air pollution persist.

A study has found that frequent flyers representing just 1% of the global population caused half of the aviation industry’s carbon emissions in 2018. It also finds that although the industry produced a billion tons of carbon dioxide, it benefited from a USD$100 billion subsidy by not paying for its climate damage. 

The study, published in the journal Global Environmental Change, found that in 2018, 11% of the world’s population took a flight and 4% flew abroad. 

What is Happening?

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From 2013 to 2018, aviation emissions jumped 32% thanks to an increase in frequent flyers around the world. While flight numbers in 2020 have fallen by half due to COVID-19, industry experts expect a return to previous levels by 2024. The team of researchers say that the pandemic should be an opportunity to make the aviation industry more sustainable, suggesting that green conditions be added on government bailouts to the industry, as has been seen in France

Stefan Gössling at Linnaeus University in Sweden, who led the new study, says, “If you want to resolve climate change and we need to redesign [aviation], then we should start at the top, where a few ‘super emitters’ contribute massively to global warming. The rich have had far too much freedom to design the planet according to their wishes. We should see the crisis as an opportunity to slim the air transport system.”

The researchers estimated the cost of the climate damage caused by aviation’s emissions at $100 billion in 2018. The researchers say that “the absence of payments to cover this damage represents a major subsidy to the most affluent, highlighting the need to scrutinise the sector, and in particular the super emitters.”

While some have proposed a levy on frequent flyers to discourage flights, Gössling points out that frequent flyers are usually very wealthy, meaning that higher ticket prices may not deter them. Instead, he suggests asking airlines to increase the share of low-carbon synthetic fuels mix every year up to 100% by 2050. 

A key pillar of the industry’s plans is the carbon offsetting and reduction scheme for international aviation, produced by the UN’s air transport body. However, this was heavily criticised in June when revisions were seen as watering down the scheme, with experts estimating that airlines would not have to offset any emissions until 2024.

Gössling says, “I think they have a zero interest in climate change.”

New research has found that a small rise in people’s long-term exposure to air pollution is associated with an 11% increase in deaths from COVID-19. Another recent study suggests that 15% of all COVID-19 deaths around the world can be attributed to dirty air. The studies show the urgent need to reduce levels of air pollution around the world, particularly in virus hotspots, so as to potentially reduce the number of fatalities. 

It is important to note that while the available data only establishes correlations, not connections and that further work is needed, the researchers say that the evidence is now strong enough that levels of air pollution must be considered a key factor in handling COVID-19 outbreaks.

The new analysis is based on research reported by the Guardian earlier this year, which has since been reviewed by independent scientists and published in Science Advances journal. The consideration of new data and more factors that may influence COVID-19 death rates refined the rise in deaths from 15% down to 11%. The study considered the impact of a single-unit rise in average particle pollution over 16 years before the pandemic on COVID-19 deaths in 3 089 US counties, covering 98% of the population. 

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It included the 116 747 deaths up to 18 June, when the study was submitted for review, and considered more than 20 other factors, including population densities, state-level stay-at-home orders, hospital bed provision and social and economic status.

Breathing polluted air has already been linked to heart and lung disease, and these illnesses make COVID-19 infections worse. Additionally, short-term exposure to air pollution is known to increase the risk of acute lung infections. 

Ideally, to confirm the link between air pollution and COVID-19, a large number of patients could be assessed on an individual level, so that their age, smoking history and other details can be taken into account. However, such data is not yet available so researchers have used data on groups of people. While this may indicate a link, it may hide important individual factors. 

Professor Francesca Dominici at Harvard University, who led the analysis, says that there is now enough evidence to act immediately. She says, “We already have an overwhelming amount of evidence of the adverse health effects of fine particle pollution, so even without COVID, we should implement more stringent regulation. But the amount of COVID-related evidence is also big enough now that there is absolutely nothing to lose, and only benefits, to prioritise some of the more vulnerable areas.”

This could include cutting pollution and increasing healthcare and PPE availability in the most polluted places, she says. 

The second study, published in the journal Cardiovascular Research, used global air pollution data and studies including the above work to estimate the proportion of COVID-19 deaths attributable to long-term exposure to polluted air. 

The team concluded that 15% of worldwide deaths may have resulted from the damage that polluted air causes to the heart and lungs. The team also made estimates for countries and found that 27% of COVID-19 deaths in China are attributable to air pollution, 26% in Germany, 18% in the US and 14% in the UK. 

Again, it is important to note that while it is extremely likely that there is a link between air pollution and COVID-19 deaths, more studies are needed to definitively prove so. However, this should guide decision makers in their plans to mitigate air pollution.

Featured image by: Flickr  

According to a report published by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), up to 80% of cars exported to developing countries, more than half in Africa, fail to meet minimum safety and environmental standards in exporting countries. 

Between 2015 and 2018, 14 million older, poor quality cars were exported from Europe, Japan and the US to developing countries. More than half of these went to Africa. The report found that because of the age and quality of the vehicles, they are making air pollution on the continent worse. Shockingly, many of the vehicles have also been tampered with to remove valuable parts, including airbags and antilock brake systems, contributing to increased road accidents. 

Rob de Jong from UNEP and one of the report’s authors, says, “What we can say is that of those 14 million vehicles, up to around 80% are not roadworthy and don’t meet a vehicle emission standard called Euro 4 [introduced in 2005]. That means that those vehicles emit 90% more emissions because they are not meeting this minimal standard.” 

In the team’s three-year analysis, researchers found that regulations on car imports in the majority of the 146 countries they studied were “weak” or “very weak.” The report urged both exporters and importers to put tougher regulations in place to curb the flow of these vehicles. 

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The team found that in 2017, the average age of a diesel vehicle imported into Uganda was over 20 years old, and the same was for Zimbabwe. Around 30 countries in Africa do not have any age limit on cars. 

Many of these cars exported from Europe come from the Netherlands, who have expressed a desire for action to be taken at the European level. Stientje van Veldhoven, the Netherlands minister for the environment, says, “The Netherlands cannot address this issue alone. Therefore, I will call for a coordinated European approach, and a close cooperation between European and African governments, to ensure that the EU only exports vehicles that are fit for purpose, and compliant with standards set by importing countries.” 

Action is starting to be taken in many African countries, as they realise the impact of procuring dirty vehicles on the health of its citizens. Morocco now only permits cars less than five years old to be imported, while Kenya has an age limit of eight years. Further, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), representing 15 countries, has set cleaner fuel and vehicle standards from January 2021.

An estimated two billion vehicles are set to be on the roads by 2040, up from 1.4 billion today. It is imperative that countries implement public transportation systems to allow citizens to go car-free and pollute less, or at the very least implement measures to increase electric vehicle uptake. 

Featured image by: Flickr 

According to a report by the EEA, the EU environment agency, one in every eight deaths in the bloc can be linked to pollution, specifying that air and noise pollution, as well as poor water quality and exposure to chemicals, contributes.

The report, described as a “major assessment on health and the environment in Europe,” found that a total of 630 000 premature deaths in the EU were attributable to environmental factors in 2012 (the latest year for which data is available). 

Air pollution contributed to 400 000 annual deaths in the EU, with noise pollution contributing to 12 000. The remaining deaths were linked to extreme weather events such as heatwaves. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) says that air pollution causes the death of millions of people around the world annually and accounts for a third of fatalities from strokes, lung cancer and heart disease. Noise pollution, it says, contributes to heart problems by raising blood pressure and stress hormones. 

However, premature deaths linked to air pollution have fallen from 1 million in 1990, and water quality throughout most of Europe has improved. 

The report added that poorer communities and vulnerable people were the hardest hit by pollution. “Poorer people are disproportionately exposed to air pollution and extreme weather, including heatwaves and extreme cold. This is linked to where they live, work and go to school, often in socially deprived urban neighbourhoods close to heavy traffic” it says.

“Socially deprived communities typically struggle under a triple burden of poverty, poor quality environments and ill health,” the EEA report said. 

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What Countries Are Most Affected? 

The report found that “the burden of environmental disease” is unevenly spread across Europe, with Eastern and south-eastern Europe being more polluted than the rest of the continent. It pointed to the fact that the percentage of deaths attributable to environmental factors ranges from a low of 9% in Norways and Iceland to 23% in Albania and 27% in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

The highest environmental contribution to deaths is in Romania at 19%. Other hard-hit countries include Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia. In the UK, around 12% of deaths are linked to pollution. 

What Can We Do?

“Green and blue spaces” should be prioritised as they cool cities during heatwaves, alleviate flood waters and reduce noise pollution and support urban biodiversity, the report says. 

Other recommendations include reducing road traffic and removing fossil fuel subsidies. The European Commission has suggested introducing measures to encourage greater uptake of electric vehicles. 

In 2019, London introduced a Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) to limit vehicular emissions, which involves charging drivers more to use older vehicles in certain areas. Italy has the most low emissions zones- some permanent, many seasonal. Germany has 80 and the Netherlands and the UK have 14 each. 

Meanwhile, France has implemented a €20 million subsidy scheme to encourage more cyclists, whereby everyone will be eligible for bike repairs of up to €50 at registered mechanics.

Featured image by: Wikimedia Commons 

Over the first half of the year, more coal power generation capacity has shut down than has started operation around the world for the first time on record, according to a US research and advocacy group. 

The Global Energy Monitor, which tracks fossil fuel development, found that the closure of coal generators across Europe and the US, exceeded stations being commissioned, largely in Asia. 

China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, dominates coal power development, having built nearly two-thirds of the world’s operating plants and being home to nearly 90% of generators under construction. 

However, the amount of coal power commissioned in China to the end of June was more than 40% below the same period last year, at 11.4 gigawatts compared to 19.4 GWs, because of COVID-19.

Thankfully, India shut more capacity than it opened. New Delhi commissioned 0.9 GW of coal generation, while 1.2 GWs were closed and more than 27 GWs of proposals were cancelled. 

Christine Shearer, Global Energy Monitor’s coal program director, says that India had reduced the amount of coal it planned to build because it struggled to compete with cheaper alternatives, such as new solar and wind. 

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She adds that the global decline was due to COVID-19 and record retirements in the EU after the carbon price was increased and pollution regulations tightened. Coal-fired generation fell by an estimated 3% last year. 

China and India’s coal fleets were running at barely half capacity before the pandemic started, but China was continuing to grant permits for construction at the highest rate since 2016. 

There is already overcapacity in China’s coal industry. A study from the University of Maryland projected that the average utilisation rate of the country’s coal plants could drop to 45% by 2025. 

“The COVID pandemic has paused coal plant development around the world and offers a unique opportunity for countries to reassess their future energy plans and choose the cost-optimal path, which is to replace coal power with clean energy,” says Shearer.

Globally, 18.3 GWs of coal power was commissioned in the first half of the year, and 21.2 GWs shut. About 8.3 GW of this was in the EU, with Spain shutting half its fleet and Britain going coal-free for two months, and 5.4 GW in the US. 

Japan opened 1.8 GW but plans to retire 100 inefficient coal-fired units and Germany opened the 1.1 GW Datteln coal plant. About 72 GW of planned new coal was cancelled, but 190 GW remains under construction. 

IPCC scenarios suggest that coal power generation must fall 50% below current levels by 2030 to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius by 2100. 75% will need to shut over the decade to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

Despite this, world demand for coal is set for its biggest annual drop since World War II because of COVID-19, according to the International Energy Agency. Additionally, global investment in offshore wind power increased 319% in the first half of the year, with financing approved for 28 new projects totalling USD$35 billion, more than what was approved in all of 2019

Featured image by: Henk Verheyen

According to a study published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) is approaching levels not seen in 15 million years and perhaps never experienced by hominoids. 

Atmospheric CO2 Levels Over Geologic Time

The study shows that within five years, atmospheric CO2 will pass 427 parts per million, which was the probable peak of the mid-Pliocene warming period 3.3 million years ago, when temperatures were 3C to 4C hotter and sea levels were 20 metres higher than today. 

Around 2025, the Earth is likely to have CO2 conditions not experienced since the Middle Miocene Climatic Optimum 15 million years ago, when our ancestors are thought to have diverged from orangutans.

Researchers from the University of Southampton were able to construct high-resolution records of atmospheric CO2 levels thought to be prevalent during the Pliocene epoch. This was achieved by deriving data from the boron levels in extremely small fossils collected from the Caribbean Sea. 

Their findings were able to confirm previous trends observed in ice cores, and enabled the researchers to build on this data in order to generate precise estimations of CO2 when solar radiation matched the levels observable today.

“A striking result we’ve found is that the warmest part of the Pliocene had between 380 and 420 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere,” Thomas Chalk, one of the contributing researchers, said. “This is similar to today’s value of around 415 parts per million, showing that we are already at levels that in the past were associated with temperature and sea-level significantly higher than today.”

“Currently, our CO2 levels are rising at about 2.5 ppm per year, meaning that by 2025 we will have exceeded anything seen in the last 3.3 million years,” one of the researchers of the study said. 

The study outlines how data about what the climate was like in the past can assist in predicting what the climate is likely to be like in the future, which is especially important in formulating a response to the increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions that have accumulated over the past two centuries as a result of industrialisation. 

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What Does this Mean for the Future of Earth’s Climate?

Gavin Foster, a professor of isotope geochemistry at the University of Southampton and contributor to the study, says, “Ice sheets today haven’t had a chance to catch up with CO2 forcing. We are burning through the Pliocene and heading towards a Miocene-like future.” 

During the Middle Miocene epoch, ice sheets shrank further and sea levels were significantly higher than the Pliocene- which Foster stated had occurred prior to any human habitation or evolution. This raises concerns about what the Earth’s future climate is going to be like given the burden of human-induced pollution. 

What is Being Done?

The rise in temperature trajectory for the current era is being addressed as part of a new international collaboration coordinated by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), led by the UK’s Met Office. In what will be an annually-updated five-year climate prediction, scientists and researchers alike stressed that there is a 20% chance the Earth will reach 1.5 degrees Celsius warming above pre-industrial levels before 2025.

The WMO secretary-general, Petteri Taalas, says, “this study shows – with a high level of scientific skill – the enormous challenge ahead in meeting the Paris Agreement on climate change target of keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5C.” 

Carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions have rebounded globally to average levels as lockdown conditions as a result of the pandemic have eased, raising fears that annual emissions of greenhouse gases could surge to higher levels than ever before once pandemic conditions abate.

Overall emissions fell by 25% when lockdowns were at their peak. The Integrated Carbon Observation System (ICOS) reported a peak decrease of 26% in daily global CO₂ emissions. However, emissions rebounded to within 5% of mean 2019 levels in early June as countries lifted or weakened their confinement policies. 

“Things have happened very fast,” said Corinne Le Quéré, a professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia and the lead author of the studies. “Very few countries still have stringent confinement. We expected emissions to come back, but that they have done so rapidly is the biggest surprise.” 

Emissions from January 1 to June 11 are currently 8.6% lower than in the same period for 2019 and the 2020 annual emissions are likely to be between 4% to 7% lower than for the whole of last year, which is not a enough to make a significant contribution to the cuts in emissions needed to fulfil the Paris Agreement. To do so will require structural changes to transport systems and how energy generation.

Emissions in the UK had fallen by 31% in early April when the lockdown was at its peak, however emissions during the week of June 11 were found to be 23% lower than those of last year’s. The reduction is set to shrink further as lockdown measures are further eased. 

Most of the fall and rebounds in emission have come from road transport. Le Quéré says, “Emissions from transport were always going to go back up, but government responses have not been as fast as I would have liked [to make changes to people’s driving habits.] It would be terrible if we carry on going back to normal. It would be a disaster.”  

Air pollution has not rebounded as fast as CO₂ emissions in Europe. Monitoring services have found that the expected increase in pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and particles was not yet apparent. However, concentrations of fine particles and nitrogen dioxide across China are now at the same levels as one year earlier, with indications that Europe will soon follow. 

While emissions overall are still down on last year, there are concerns that as lockdowns around the world ease further in the upcoming months, carbon dioxide emissions from cars could surge to levels higher than pre- pandemic levels as people avoid public transport.

Le Quéré added that the role of governments around the world would be key. She stated that the government should not be blinded by its goal to boost the economy, but instead should be aware of the possible climate change impacts that the surge in emissions could yield. Governments should use their economic rescue packages to encourage a switch to low carbon infrastructure, renovate buildings to make them more energy efficient and plant trees. “The window of opportunity will not be closed until the end of the year” she said. “But after that it will be closed.” 

Richard George of Greenpeace UK said focusing on a green recovery should be an urgent priority. “All efforts now need to be focused on supporting a green economic recovery, creating jobs and boosting clean technologies. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a permanent silver lining. Let’s not throw it away”. 

The fight against the COVID-19 pandemic eased air pollution levels as a result of lockdown measures around the world, especially in China. However, data from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (Crea) shows that the concentrations of fine particles (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) across China are now at the same levels as one year earlier. At the height of the country’s pandemic response in early March, NO2 levels were down by 38% while PM2.5 levels were down by 34% from 2019. 

Lauri Myllyvirta, Crea’s lead analyst, says, “The rapid rebound in air pollution and coal consumption levels across China is an early warning of what a smokestack industry-led rebound could look like. Highly polluting industries have been faster to recover from the crisis than the rest of the economy.” She emphasises the need for policymakers to maintain and prioritise clean energy. 

Additionally, energy consultancy group Wood Mackenzie predicts that China’s oil demand will recover to near-normal levels in the second quarter of this year. 

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In Wuhan, the city at the centre of the epidemic, NO2 levels are now 14% lower than last year, having briefly dropped by almost half, while Shanghai’s latest levels are 9% higher than that of last year. 

European cities have also experienced reduced air pollution; 42 of them recorded below-average levels of NO2 in March, according to data from the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS). London and Paris saw 30% reductions in NO2, a pollutant hugely produced by diesel vehicles. 

However, Europe’s pollution levels are also expected to rebound, although Vincent-Henri Peuch, the director of CAMS says that they have not yet been able to show that. He noted average air pollution levels across cities. 

Peuch added that what happens to the future air quality in European cities remains to be seen, saying “We do not know how people’s behaviour will change, for example avoiding public transport and therefore relying more on their own cars or continuing to work from home.” While Spring is normally the most polluted season in Western Europe in normal years due to the start of agriculture, projecting future pollution changes is considered complex. 

Gary Fuller, an air pollution expert at King’s College London, says “Rather than let this time be forgotten, the United Nations and environmental campaigners are urging governments to ‘build back better, to invest in the future not the past’, and to ensure that our global recovery has a sustainable legacy.” 

Air pollution affects virtually every organ in the body and growing bodies of research has linked exposure to dirty air to increased risk of death from COVID-19, making clear the need to keep the air pollution low to prevent the dangers of a new wave of infections. 

Air pollution causes at least eight million premature deaths annually, with 1.1 million of these in China. Experts have called for action to be taken to ensure that air quality remains at lockdown levels; some cities have taken such measures, including expanding bicycle lanes and pedestrian spaces. The rise in air pollution in China and Europe is a clear demonstration that clean energy should be prioritised in the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis; all eyes are on China as the first major economy to return to work after its lockdown.

Featured image by: V.T. Polywoda

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