According to the WHO, air pollution kills an estimate of 7 million people per year. More than 80% of people living in urban areas are constantly exposed to air quality levels that exceed WHO guidance limits.
Poor air quality has an impact not only on health but also on the environment. Pollution is clearly visible in cities such as New Delhi, Beirut, Sao Paulo, New York, London and a long list of renowned cities….until a few weeks ago.
The pandemic has caused factories to stop manufacturing and people to stay home and therefore, not using any kind of transport unless strictly necessary. All over the world, we have seen how air quality increased, starting with China where we could observe a 25% decline in air pollution. A clear example of this is New Delhi where the Air Quality Index (AQI) is normally around 200 and it has now drastically reduced to 30 (even 7 on a rainy day).
But will these changes have a permanent effect?
The first thing to consider is the reason why air pollution has declined. Transport on its own makes up for 23% of total emissions; out of that 23, 72% is caused by driving and 11% by the aviation industry. Therefore, this will last as long as the pandemic lasts and people must stay home but once they have to resume their day to day activities, it is highly likely that levels will rise up again.
We are already seeing this in China now that the population is back to their regular lives. Pollution has returned back to pre COVID-19 levels even though the country is not fully operational which makes experts fear it will go even higher in an attempt to recover financial losses.
It is not the first time that CO2 levels decline during an epidemic, even before the Industrial Revolution took place. We can see subtle decreases in air pollution during the Black Death in Europe in the 14th century and other epidemic diseases such as smallpox brought to South American by Spanish conquistadors.
On recent events, this is only comparable to the decline we saw during the 2008 crash that led to a dip in emissions of 1.3% but was quickly recovered during 2010 as the economy recovered. So, while it’s likely that we will see a decline in emissions in 2020, it’s also highly unlikely that it will continue over the coming years unless measures are taken.
No one wanted for emissions to be lowered this way. But it has also shown the difference that communities can make when they take action and collaborate – and that climate change could also be successfully tackled.