Coronavirus could be ‘bad news’ for air pollution in long-term, scientist warns

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels have fallen dramatically across the world as governments introduce tough restrictions on transport to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. However, a scientist is warning that long-term, Covid-19 may be bad news for air quality and the environment.

Dr Gabriel da Silva, a senior lecturer in chemical engineering at the University of Melbourne, writes that whilst satellites have witnessed drops in air pollution ‘almost overnight’, as economies eventually recover, there is likely to be an ’emissions surge’ which will leave the environment worse off. 
Dr da Silva points to the global financial crash in 2008 which was followed by a sharp rebound in pollution as the world economy recovered.

He also writes a weak global economy threatens investment in renewable energy sources, particularly given the availability of cheap oil.

He adds that there is also a risk that environmental policies will be relaxed during this time of crisis, as is already starting to happen in the US. 

The lockdown won’t necessarily have any long-term benefits for climate change, either, writes Dr da Silva. He says that unlike many other air pollutants, CO₂ exists in the atmosphere for around a hundred years. That means a short-term drop in emissions won’t cause a decrease in its atmospheric concentration.

However, he hopes that the pandemic will provide important scientific information on the impacts of air pollution. For example, reductions in air polltion during the 2008 Beijing Olympics was used to show that air pollution was linked to poor cardiovascular health and low birth weight. 

In the piece, he calls for widespread structural change or else we ‘won’t be breathing easier for long’.

Last week, Air Quality News analysed Department for Energy, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) monitoring data for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in London, Leeds, Manchester, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Bristol and Newcastle, comparing yesterday (March 24) with the same day last year (March 26), finding big reductions in emissions.

Edinburgh saw the largest drop in concentrations from a daily average of  74µg/m3 im 2019, to 28µg/m3 , as regular commuters worked from home and only essential workers were permitted to travel into the Scottish capital to do their job.

London Westminster also saw a massive decrease in NO2 emissions, from 58µg/m3 in 2019 to 30µg/m3.

Despite the fall in NO2 emissions, citizens in UK cities were warned by European health experts that exposure to air pollution could increase their risk of dying from Covid-19.

The warning came from the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), who say that doctors are starting to link higher death rates for Covid-19 to illnesses caused by air pollution such as high blood pressure, diabetes and certain respiratory illnesses.

EPHA has highlighted a 2003 study on victims of the coronavirus SARS found that patients in regions with moderate air pollution levels were 84% more likely to die than those in regions with low air pollution.

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Fintan Hurley
Fintan Hurley

With regard to new evidence, Dr. da Silva “hopes that the pandemic will provide important scientific information on the impacts of air pollution.” Nice if it’s possible to do reliable studies, but with so many other things (diet, exercise, whatever) changing in these days of lock-down, it will be difficult to attribute changes in health to changes in air pollution specifically. I doubt the the kind of time series studies often used to show effects of pollution during ‘natural experiments’ like the Beijing Olympics will be sufficient. The work highlighted by EPHA seems more promising, that air pollution is one… Read more »


Couple of points related to eachother. Firstly, presumably the current data readings represent society’s de minimis climate and AQ impact. Could ways be found (if not already in place) to begin to understand segmental impacts? Secondly, when it comes to lifting lockdown and re-mobilising the economy would that not be an ideal opportunity to examine segmental impacts eg. restart certain production functions first, then mobilise office based commutes in some kind of priority order until to try to understand each segment’s footprint impact.