Countries around the world have reported significant drops in air pollution since implementing coronavirus restrictions. It’s our chance to make a lasting difference, writes Freddie Talberg, CEO and co-founder of Emsol.
‘Unprecedented’ has been the word of the moment as we find ourselves living through a health pandemic, the likes of which most of us have never seen before.
Who would have thought, even last month, that we would be faced with school closures, panic buying and huge bailouts of the economy that make Boris Johnson’s government look like Clement Attlee’s?
We will not know the long-term impact of this pandemic for months, maybe even years, but in the short-term as business braces for a bumpy ride ahead and our health system prepares for its most pressurised moment since the founding of the welfare state, we can look for some glimmers of light in the darkness.
In both China and Italy, there have been significant and immediate reductions in levels of air pollution in response to government lockdowns to tackle the virus outbreak. Research suggests a 25% drop in energy usage in the former that could see a 1% decline in its carbon emissions by the end of the year. In Italy, the vision of Venice’s canals running clear puts into perspective how quickly a reduction in human activity can positively improve air quality.
Looking around London, you can see the impact of full-scale lockdown just days in. Almost no traffic on the streets, and the number of people entering the city centre significantly down. This is reducing the public’s exposure to harmful particulates and other sources of air pollution, as it is in New York, where lockdown measures were implemented last week; early research shows carbon monoxide emissions down 50% on this time last year.
We should be careful about the conclusions that can be made from this. These positive environmental effects are down a significant government intervention that has essentially shut down all economic activity in response to a major public health emergency. These measures are going to take a toll on our wellbeing and can in no way be considered a sustainable solution.
But it makes me wonder. Can we possibly balance economic and social wellbeing whilst having a meaningful impact upon pollution levels in our cities? We will not be able to see the long-term legacy of this pandemic for years, but we should think about what we want it to be.
In my opinion, if one thing emerges above all else as the one thing we learn from COVID-19 and the lockdown measures it has enforced, is that we must reconsider certain aspects of our lives that we deem necessary and the long-term impact that our actions have on air quality. Seeing how much more vulnerable those with underlying health issues, including chronic lung conditions, are to the coronavirus says so much about the importance of good air quality.
We have to emerge from this crisis with a completely different attitude on how we tackle air quality issues and how we protect lung health.
The excellent quality open source data, such as that provided by the European Space Agency showing Italy and by NASA showing China, allows us to monitor the impacts of lockdown measures and track air pollution in real-time. This sort of tracking has to continue once restrictions are lifted and include specific remediations, in order to prevent a spike in pollutive activity.
Families are going to travel to visit loved ones not seen for months across the country and the world, or they will take that holiday they had to cancel. Businesses meanwhile will look to make up for lost time and industrial production will ramp up. ‘Flatten the curve’ has been the government’s motto around coronavirus, and should be the world’s motto regarding emissions after this is over.
We therefore must have practical solutions in place. Taking control of emissions is difficult at the best of times, but technology can be used to help companies track their emissions levels and act on air quality, on a scale that works for them – it is not just a job for the world’s largest space agencies.
EMSOL for example, provides businesses with real-time, specific, actionable evidence about emission breaches delivered straight to their mobile. So, they can pinpoint the problem the moment it becomes a problem, and take specific steps every day to improve air quality.
It may not seem the priority right now but this pandemic does not change that we are in an ongoing climate crisis. COVID-19 is forcing us to ask fundamental questions about how we live our lives, and it is a wake-up call for London and big cities around the world about the importance of good lung health.
When all this is over, I hope to see our political and business leaders make the legislative changes necessary that mean we can track and reduce our pollution levels for the long-term.