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Pollution to Sky-Rocket as Lockdowns Loosen

Updated: Aug 26, 2020

Sarah Clifford discusses what lessons can be learned about improving air quality as life resumes in the new normal.

Photo by Sergio Rodriguez

Covid-19 has changed many people’s lives more than any pandemic in living memory. Extreme measures were put in place, restricting travel and limiting contact as much as possible to control the deadly virus. Industries were shut down, planes grounded and only those in essential positions continued to work. 

One of the effects of this was that pollution levels dropped dramatically. In China, major pollutants dropped by as much as 40% compared to the previous year. However, as countries ease lockdown and restart their economies, it is to be expected that pollution will rise again – but by how much?

What is Covid-19?

The World Health Organisation was first notified about a Viral Pneumonia being contracted at a seafood market in Wuhan, China in December 2019, which would later be named Covid-19.The virus has affected 216 countries, causing almost 600,000 confirmed deaths and over 13 million cases.  

The significant threat of the disease to a large proportion of the population initially prompted countries around the world to introduce drastic limitations on people’s activities and movements, which in turn led to a drop in emissions.

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Covid-19 and Pollution

The devastating effects of Covid-19 have been far-reaching, but they have brought into focus the reality that reversing the effects of human activity on the environment is far more within reach than most believe. 

Arguably the most serious environmental concern of our age is pollution. Not only is it the key cause of climate change, but it is estimated that air pollution leads to 7 million deaths annually worldwide. 

Several studies in different countries have also found that areas with higher pollution have a higher number of deaths from Covid-19 due to the propensity for poor air-quality to increase infectivity. Francesca Dominici, a biostatics professor at Harvard University, has even said that

“if you’re getting COVID, and you have been breathing polluted air, it’s really putting gasoline on a fire”. 

Perhaps if we had cleaner skies, the death rate of this pandemic would not have been so severe.

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Pollution in China

China was the first country hit by the Covid-19 virus. During the first 30 days after China put in measures to stop the spread of the virus (during February 2020), levels of CO2, NO2 and PM2.5, three harmful pollutants, in the atmosphere decreased significantly

However, these pollutants have been gradually increasing again since the end of March as the country moved past its infection peak, and between mid-April and May, they surpassed levels recorded from last year and are still rising. This has indisputably been caused by China restarting its industry to boost the economy. 

Similar peaks in pollution were recorded immediately after the SARS epidemic 2003 and the economic crash in 2008. Though Covid-19 has given the world a small breather from harmful pollutants, it seems that things are slipping back to normal quickly.

The Future of Pollution

Seeing such a significant drop in pollution in such a short space of time is a unique opportunity for people to see how reversible climate change could be if we force emissions to drop. The pandemic has been a difficult time for all on this planet, it has forced many to stop, perhaps to think and reflect. It has highlighted that we are the authors of our future, and that we have the power to clear our skies and save our planet.


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