Have you noticed a difference in the clouds and air quality lately since Covid-19 took over the world’s economy and traffic systems? The sounds of nature and its biodiversity have gradually replaced the engine and traffic noises of planes, factories, and cars, that characterized our daily functionality. More than 80% of the global population has been in confinement for several weeks and the impact on the environment has been noticeable at all levels. Indeed, the repercussions of Covid-19 outbreak on the global economy has resulted in the lockdown of many factories, less traffics on the roads and no commercial flights in the air. These massive shutdowns and unprecedented measures in the world have caused domino positive effects on the environment such as a reduction in Nitrogen dioxide emissions which are major air pollutants produced by transportation industry (planes, cars, boats etc.) and industrial plants. As you step outside of your house and look up the sky, you could witness a change happening in its purity and clarity as well as the air quality. Mainly because of the lack thereof of these air pollutants that have increasingly affected the global environment and climate change for many years. Overall, the European Space Agency has provided images of satellites showing substantial improvements in air quality around the world with air pollution falling at unprecedented lows. According to Kimberly Nicholas, a sustainability science researcher at Lund University in Sweden, the reasons for the low carbon emissions levels are simple. With aviation and driving contributing respectively 72% and 11% of the transport’s greenhouse gas emissions, and the transportation sector accounting for 23% of global emissions; it comes with no surprise that the implementation of stay-at-home orders in major air polluting cities and countries around the world resulted in unprecedented high air quality levels.
The statistics from environmental agencies show unprecedented low numbers in Nitrogen dioxide emissions all over the world. Carbon brief, a UK-based website that discusses the trends in global environment and climate change has estimated that the reduction in economic activity in China for the past months has resulted in 25% reduction in CO2 emissions in the country while the European Union’s Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service (CAMS) has estimated in Italy, a gradual reduction of about 10% per week of nitrogen dioxide since the beginning of the confinement 5 weeks ago. These numbers have also been seen in London, Los Angeles, Mumbai, New-York to name a few major cities with unusual low levels of air pollution. According to the European Space Agency, the nitrogen dioxide concentrations from 13 March until 13 April 2020 in comparison to the previous year numbers show decrease around 45% in Madrid, Milan, and Rome while Paris has seen a dramatic drop of 54%. In India, for example, the stay-at-home-orders placed on its 1.3 billion population has resulted in low dioxide carbon emissions level and people can even see the Himalaya for the first time in decades as the increased air quality and purity increases visibility. Researchers from IQAir, a global air quality information company have reported that New Delhi which is one of the world’s most polluted capital city has seen a 60% reduction in dioxide carbon emissions level while Seoul, South Korea capital city saw a reduction of CO2 by 54%. South Korea air quality level is ranked among the worst in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data list, and the South Korean government even declared in 2019 the high air pollutions levels of the country, “a social disaster”. The Ministry of Ecology and Environment of China released statistics showing the impact of sudden drops in carbon emissions in a country known with one of the highest levels of air pollution ‘’Emissions fell 25% at the start of the year 2020 as people were instructed to stay at home, factories shuttered and coal use fell by 40% at China’s six largest power plants since the last quarter of 2019. The proportion of days with “good quality air” was up 11.4% compared with the same time last year in 337 cities across China’’.
As we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Earth Day this past month, the current global air pollution lows could not come at a better time to remind us of the importance of preserving clean air environment. Indeed, the World Health Organization has listed air pollution as a global public health emergency with seven million pollution-related deaths per year. Although the good news of low carbon emissions occurs in times of pandemic related death and economic uncertainty, the aftermath could result in major changes in our public environmental policies and guidelines. That is our hope and plea to the national governments and international organizations. Best practices must derive from these low numbers once it is all said and done with Covid-19. Core priorities should be reassessed and adjusted accordingly. When do we really need to drive or fly? The mode of transportation can alter in households that work few minutes from their homes for example. Walking, cycling among other measures could help lower the number of cars on the road and have a direct impact on the gas emissions levels. If the pandemic-related adjusted behaviors are transformed into long lasting habits after the outbreak, the world will become a better place to live with cleaner air environment.