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Smog from air pollution is a common feature in most cities

The Positive Effects of Coronavirus on the Air Pollution Globally

By David Okul

COVID-19 has brought the world to a standstill. However, the coronavirus has had some positive impacts on the environment, at least in the short-run. One of the significant positive effects of lockdowns is the decline in air pollution.  Even the most densely populated megacities are now witnessing their lowest levels of pollution in several decades.

The scenario can be attributed to a reduction in industrial and commercial activity. Nonetheless, we know that the decrease in air pollution due to the coronavirus is temporary. That notwithstanding, there exists a fundamental connection between coronavirus and pollution. This article focuses on how the virus has contributed to the decline in air pollution.

Lockdowns have resulted in the decline of air pollution

Governments worldwide have ordered billions of people to stay in their residential areas to contain the virus.  Some governments, such as China and Italy, had placed millions of people under strict lockdown. As a result, the world has witnessed a pause in pollution, something it hasn’t experienced in so many years.

Whereas many forms of pollution have declined substantially since the onset of the pandemic, air pollution has recorded the most significant decline. Global reports indicate that air pollution has dropped by 25% during the first month of the pandemic.  Primarily because of the reduction in travel and production. In China alone, the nation has recorded a 30% and 50% decline in carbon and nitrogen oxide emissions.  Following a reduction in air pollution, the world is relatively less vulnerable to climate change, and other associated problems of air pollution.

Better still, the world has arguably experienced the best air quality in the recent past. European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA have been monitoring air pollution during the first phase of the pandemic. The two bodies concluded that carbon emissions had dropped significantly, and the world is enjoying the best possible air quality.

Clear blue skies

Air pollution usually obscures the skyline, particularly in major industrial cities worldwide. However, this hasn’t been the case since the pandemic hit the world. Nitrogen levels in industrial cities such as Los Angeles, Shanghai, and Berlin have plummeted since the start of the pandemic. Smog is clearing up over cities that were once labeled as pollution havens.

Since the start of lockdowns and quarantines, industries have slowed down their activities. As a result, some high-rise buildings that had been covered by smog for years are now visible from miles away. In Jakarta, the Philippines, air pollutants had plummeted by 180% since the Philippine government introduced quarantine measures in March 2020.

 Before these measures came into effect, the city’s skyline was synonymous with fog.  But the pandemic has led to the disappearance of the fog. 

Reduction in pollution-related deaths

Pollution accounts for over 4 million deaths worldwide. Some of the pollution-related ailments include lung cancer, heart disease, stroke, and other types of chronic respiratory conditions. Since a significant size of the world’s population lives in pollution-prone areas, billions of people are vulnerable to pollution-related ailments.

 There has been a substantial decline in all forms of pollution since COVID-19, as demonstrated by a Chinese study. Moreover, the number of people succumbing to pollution-related deaths has recorded a sharp decline even as coronavirus takes its toll on human life. Nevertheless, the reduction in pollution-related deaths is temporary thanks to the measures introduced to combat COVID 19. Therefore, a long-term approach must be embraced to ensure the trend continues long after the pandemic.

coronavirus positive effect on decline of air pollution
A town in China showing air pollution levels after and before the covid-19 lockdowns

Slashed greenhouse emissions

Greenhouse gas emissions have declined sharply, owing to reduced air and road traffic.  For instance, China reduced its CO2 emissions by 25% because of the crises. In Europe, CO2 emissions from electricity reduced by 39% while India’s carbon emissions fell for the first time in forty years. There are numerous stats on the effect of lower emissions levels from the coronavirus. Perhaps the most remarkable stat is that COVID-19 has six times more impact on carbon emissions when compared to the financial crisis of 2008. 

However, it would be a fallacy to insinuate that greenhouse gas emissions reduction is a substantial environmental improvement.  After all, the emissions will ultimately rise to their past levels once the pandemic reaches an end.  Nevertheless, green coronavirus recovery measures will help reduce emissions levels and maybe be better for the economy! 

To reiterate, the coronavirus has not reduced GHG in the atmosphere. In May 2020, National Geographic reported atmospheric greenhouse gases were at 418 parts per million- the highest in recorded history. Reduction of GHG from the atmosphere will require reduce of emissions over longer period of time. 

In short, coronavirus has led to reduced pollutants in the air

The air pollution effects of the novel COVID 19 are crystal clear. While the virus is responsible for a devastating global misery, it has provided a reprieve as far as pollution is concerned. Globally, the world is experiencing its lowest levels of pollution in modern, thanks to COVID 19. That is not to say that we want the virus to persist. Instead, we should appreciate that it is possible to reduce air pollution, a critical contributor to climate change.  

David Okul is an environmental management professional with over 10 years experience on donor projects, conservation, forestry, ecotourism, and community-based natural resources management. When not working on  active environmental management projects, I spend my time writing for Silvica on a variety of topics.