Air Quality Gains Due to Coronavirus Slowdown Could Save More Lives than COVID-19 Claims
First in China, now in Italy, satellite data are pointing to a predictable but still dramatic connection between the coronavirus and climate emergencies—as countries curtail economic activity in a bid to slow the growth of a global pandemic, they’re also reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, at least temporarily.
Based on data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-5P satellite, the Washington Post reported last week that nitrogen dioxide concentrations over Italy, particularly the country’s hard-hit northern region, fell drastically between January 1 and March 12. Earlier this month, similar measurements showed NO2 levels down by up to 30% over China—and the air much cleaner—with industrial facilities and coal-fired power plants ramped down, and fewer cars on the road.
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“It is an unprecedentedly dramatic drop in emissions,” Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at China’s new Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, said at the time. “I’ve definitely spoken to people in Shanghai who said it’s been some of the most pristine blue skies they remember over the winter.”
“Nitrogen dioxide is not one of the major greenhouse gases linked to climate change. But it is produced from combustion,” the Post explained. “So it serves as a proxy for other emissions that warm the atmosphere. It also is a pollutant that can increase the risk of asthma, inflammation of the lungs, and other harmful health conditions.” In Italy, “several experts told The Post that the changing concentrations probably reflect the decline of driving, in particular, in a country in which more than half of cars burn diesel.”
“I guess this is mostly diesel cars out of the road,” Georgia Tech economist Emanuele Massetti, who has studied Italy’s climate policies, told the Post in an email. “I expect pollution to drop even further as the particles in the atmosphere (concentration) get either dispersed or absorbed.” And “in a few days, they will enjoy the cleanest air ever in northern Italy.”
Cleaner skies are “little comfort, of course, to a region in the grips of a deadly outbreak, wrestling with an overwhelmed health system and understandably focused on the crisis at hand rather than the long-term effects of climate change,” the Post adds. “At the same time, the stark changes offer yet another example of the impact humans have on the environment—and how swiftly emissions can vanish when humans drastically reduce the burning of fossil fuels.”
University of Tuscia forest ecologist Riccardo Valentini, director of the impacts division of the Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change, said the effects now showing up in Italy could spread across Europe. “We are the first EU country to get the epidemic outbreak, but numbers are increasing in Spain, France, and Germany, plus the others,” he said. “The real impact on climate policies could vary country by country depending on the size of the containment measures.”
But even if the pandemic ultimately triggers the biggest greenhouse gas reduction in the last century, the Post says the mechanism behind that reduction is nothing to celebrate. “It is, of course, not a good thing,” Valentini wrote. “This is not the way to reduce emissions!”
“Climate advocates agree, saying the current catastrophe is not the way any reasonable person would envision the world lowering its carbon footprint,” the Post writes. “In addition, the outbreak has halted meetings to plan for public protests for climate action in the coming months, as well as the global push to get nations to commit to more ambitious emission reduction plans at a key UN summit scheduled for this fall.”
But even though the emission reductions are expected to be temporary, one analyst is already predicting the improvements in air quality could save even more lives than the virus itself puts at risk.
“Strangely enough, I think the death toll of the coronavirus at the end of the day might be positive [on balance], if you consider the deaths from atmospheric pollution,” said Hugo Observatory Director François Gemenne, noting that atmospheric pollution kills a million people per year in China and 48,000 in France.
“These are quite fascinating times. What surprises me most is that the measures that we are ready to take to face this coronavirus are much more severe than the measures we would be ready to take to face climate change or atmospheric pollution,” Gemenne said, during a televised debate on France 24.
“I think this is something we should question: why are we so much more afraid of the coronavirus than we are of climate change or atmospheric pollution or other kinds of threats? What is so special about the coronavirus that we are ready to put the whole world on lockdown because of that?”