Coronavirus Chased The Smog Away, But For How Long?

1 month ago 4 min read
July 1, 2020
By: Katarina Samurovic
If there’s a silver lining to the pandemics catastrophic losses, it’s that nature has had an opportunity to bounce back. The grey cloud of pollution has been lifted from the planet’s most smog-choked cities, giving us a glimpse of just how bright our future can be.
 
For the first time, scientists have been able to observe what happens to the atmosphere in the face of radical pollution reduction, instead of relying solely on calculations and modeling.
 
The improvements in air quality have been rapid and observed globally.
 
A new body of research focusing on the pandemic and air pollution drew the following conclusions:
  • Pollution from Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a highly reactive gas that harms lungs and is a trademark byproduct of fuel combustion, decreased by as much as 60 percent over northern China, Western Europe, and the U.S.
  • In northern China, particulate matter pollution, and especially the problematic PM 2.5 (particles smaller than 2.5 microns), has decreased by 35 percent.
  • In New York, where traffic levels were estimated to be down by 35 percent, emissions of carbon monoxide have fallen by 50 percent, along with a 5-10percent drop in CO2 and a decline in methane levels.
Even more impressive, the decrease in air pollution may have prevented an estimated 10,822 pollution-related deaths in China (the official death toll from COVID-19 stands at 4,633). In Europe, the reduction in the burning of fossil fuels resulted in 11,000 fewer pollution-related deaths, 1,900 fewer emergency room visits, 6,000 fewer asthma cases in children, and 600 fewer preterm births.
 
Besides these stunning results, we also witnessed some spectacular visual scenes across the globe.
 
The 80 percent% reduction in car traffic has made the infamous Los Angeles smog disappear. LA residents have been able to enjoy the fresh air and witness clear blue skies—many of them for the first time.
 
India boasts an even more dramatic panorama. Citizens in the state of Punjab stood in awe at the sight of the Himalayas, the world’s tallest mountain range, that became visible on the horizon for the first time in more than 30 years.
 
Lastly, wildlife has noticeably been prowling our streets, spared of the noise and dangers of our traffic vehicles. Lastly, wildlife has noticeably been prowling our streets, spared of the noise and dangers of our traffic vehicles. The effects of reduced traffic on animal populations during the springtime breeding season can’t be determined yet, but once all the data is in, we will likely see a positive trend, at least for some species (go hedgehogs!).
 
Sadly, the same may not be true in the developing world, where crisis-induced economic hardships will likely lead to increased exploitation of natural resources – from chopping down native forests to poaching.
 
Will lockdowns help slow down climate change?
 
There has been confusion on the topic of COVID-19 and climate change. While the improvement in air quality has been dramatic, it doesn’t necessarily mean the same applies to greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the stats have been disappointing in relation to carbon dioxide, the main gaseous antagonist in global warming.
 
Despite the extensive lockdowns around the world, it’s projected that the 2020 annual emissions will go down a mere 6-8 percent. In other words, it will have almost no measurable effect on global carbon concentration and warming potential.
 
Although 2020 will see the largest annual decrease ever recorded, the overall concentration of CO2 will still be rising. “You’d need about a 10 percent% drop to have a noticeable effect on the rising CO2 concentrations, but even then concentrations would still be rising,” says Richard Betts, head of climate impacts at the Met Office.
 
The fact that lockdowns have merely dented CO2 emissions is undoubtedly upsetting, but at least they have helped us pinpoint the most powerful sources of greenhouse gas emissions. It has become evident that simply reducing our activities is not a miracle cure for rising temperatures.
 
Climatologist Gavin Schmidt, the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, said that the main problem “is that people focus way, way too much on people’s personal footprints, and whether they fly or not, without really dealing with the structural things that really cause carbon dioxide levels to go up.”
 
Unlike what climate deniers and oil mercenaries have been suggesting, a world on lockdown is not an environmentalists’ panacea and a solution to climate change. We don’t have to quit living; we need to become smarter about the ways we fuel our cars, derive our electricity, and grow our food—especially when it comes to animal farming.
 
* * *
 
The famous ancient Greek poet Aristophanes said, “The wise learn many things from their enemies.” Hopefully, we’ll be wise enough to remember and apply the lessons that COVID-19 has taught us.
 
Let’s not forget what gazing into clear skies while breathing fresh air feels like. And let’s get together and work hard on strategies to make it the new normal.