The first report of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) was released by the World Health Organization (WHO) from the Wuhan province of China in January. Ever since the outbreak of the virus, the world has changed significantly. It has had a major impact on the lives of people and the environment. With the number of cases rapidly increasing around the world, many countries were forced to go into lockdown.
However, the lockdown has proved to be positive for the environment. With several industries shutting down and the travel industry bought to halt, the air-quality improved considerably around the world. Moreover, there have been some positive, as well as negative consequences to the marine environment. An estimated seven million people worldwide die each year due to air pollution. WHO statistics indicate that 9 out of 10 individuals breathe air that contains high levels of contaminants.
The air-quality – mainly in Asian countries like China and India, which top the world population chart – where millions of people die due to air-pollution, has drastically better air quality due to economical shutdown.
In the countries like China, which has the highest population in the world, the lockdown had a dramatic impact on the fossil fuel consumption and air-quality. This resulted in a significant change in the pollutant levels in the air. In March, 2020, when China imposed strict lockdown laws, the emission of carbon dioxide plunged to 25%. Also, air-pollutants like PM2.5 and nitrogen oxide concentration dropped to 33% and 40%, respectively.
The air-pollutants can cause severe health conditions and lead to reduced lung function, respiratory infections, and aggravated asthma. Satellites of NASA‘s emission monitoring observed large reductions in NO2 in China. Evidence suggests that at least part of the transition is related to the economic downturn following the coronavirus outbreak.
India has 21 cities in the top 30 cities in the world that have worst Air-Quality Index (AQI). More than a million of India’s residents are estimated to die each year from air pollution-related diseases. The main contributors are chemical smoke, car pollution, garbage burning, crop residue, and building and road dust. When India went into lockdown, during the end of March, and suspended all transport and industrial activities to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the sky quickly turned azure blue over its most polluted cities like Delhi and Mumbai.
The air-pollution level dropped by 79% in Delhi and 76% in Mumbai. CPCB Air-Quality Index information from the day and end of the lockdown, indicated that Mumbai’s PM 2.5 average during the lockdown was 20, whereas Delhi’s PM 2.5 average during the lockdown was 49. Apart from China and India, the nitrogen dioxide emissions dropped by an average of 20 to 38% over Western Europe and the US compared to the same period in 2019 due to the lockdown.
With CO2, NO2, PM 2.5, Ozone levels declining due to COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, it is turning out to be favourable to the environment. This positive change in terms of air-quality is not permanent and would rebound at a faster rate once the lockdown restrictions are lifted. Once the lockdown restrictions are eased, the air-pollution level will eventually get back to its pre-crisis level, if the necessary measures are not taken.
With many countries ending the lockdown restrictions, the use of fossil fuels will quickly rebound and the air-pollution will return as quickly as it faded. China’s air-pollution level has already begin to rise above it pre-crisis level.
The coronavirus pandemic indicates how the future will look with less air-pollution, or simply demonstrate the severity of the future problem. This would at least encourage policy makers and businesses to look at how it can be handled better after a pandemic and to try to boost air quality immediately to thrive for a foreseeable future.
We all have a role to play towards our environment and can act towards making it safe to breathe. To achieve cleaner air, and have a climate in a long-term sustainable way post-lockdown, we can take several necessary steps as individuals or organizations. Fossil fuels need to be replaced with energy efficient and clean fuels. This could be done through proper policies, technologies, and investments. The THRIVE project can support you with tools and resources, to help you design sustainable policies, and thrive your businesses towards your goals of improved, safe air-quality.
Written in collaboration with THRIVE Tribe member Jaya Rai.