Environment Science

A crisis is changing the air we breathe

Clean air and clear skies – once a given worldwide, then a rarity in urban spaces, now making a rare comeback unseen in decades.

The image you see above is an aerial view of Paris taken on April 8, 2020 from a balloon which measures air quality during the nationwide lockdown in France.

Image credit: Philippe Lopez/AFP via Getty Images

Cut to December 16, 2016, a distant view of the Eiffel Tower captures a smoggy, wintry haze as far as the eye can see. The stunning change of scenery is the upside of a 54% reduction in nitrogen dioxide emissions and other mitigating environmental factors contributing to vastly improved air quality in Paris. More about the clear skies and clean air in Paris later, but first, an analysis of what’s shaping these changes in cityscapes worldwide.

Is the improvement in air quality real?


Air pollution has dropped to unprecedented levels in nearly every major city and industrial region of the world as a direct consequence of lockdown measures aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-10 pandemic.

From Jalandhar, a city in the northern Indian state of Punjab, comes evidence of the Himalayas being visible again after a span of nearly 30 years. For the record, the Himalayas are approximately 200 kms. or 125 miles from where the picture was taken.

Satellite photos and data from the new Sentinel-5P satellite mission of the Copernicus program of the European Space Agency shows major improvement in pollution level due to massive reductions in Nitrogen dioxide levels over some of Europe’s capitals and major cities.

Nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere is an important indicator of air quality. Nitrogen dioxide is produced from power plants, vehicles and other industrial facilities and can have significant impacts on human health – increasing the likelihood of developing respiratory problems. Nitrogen dioxide concentrations in our atmosphere vary widely on a daily basis due to fluctuating emission rates from coal-powered power plants and vehicles, as well as variations in weather conditions.

Image source: European Space Agency

This before/after image indicates nitrogen dioxide concentrations between March-April 2020, compared to the same period average for 2019. Capitals and major nitrogen dioxide contributors, Madrid, Milan and Rome saw percentage decreases in the high 40s. Paris has the seen the most significant reductions. A dramatic drop of 54% has given Parisians a rare opportunity to breathe cleaner air. The decreases come during the strict quarantine measures implemented across Europe.

Image credit: Reuters

The combination picture above shows a view of the Italian Alps from Milan on January 8 at the top, and the same view on April 17, 2020, a clear indication of cleaner air and low levels of air pollutants.

Is the improvement good news?

It’s a silver lining: one of the few positives amid the gloom, both literally and otherwise.

It’s believed that global carbon emissions are set to see their steepest fall in 2020 since World War II. The New Scientist reports that the first peer-reviewed analysis of the pandemic’s impact on CO2 or Carbon dioxide emissions predicts they will fall between 4.2 and 7.5% compared to last year (a rise of around 1% was expected for 2020 before the crisis).

Glen Peters at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Norway says, “In terms of a relative drop, you’d have to go back to the first half of the last century, around WWII”.

Analysis of data up to April 7, 2020 shows that restrictions imposed around the world had cut daily CO2 emissions by 17% of the daily average for 2019. These levels are comparable to 2006 and a stark reminder of how much emissions have grown in recent years. The good part is the reductions have been fairly uniform globally across both, developed and developing economies – case in point, Delhi, India.

Image credit: Reuters

The file photo at the top was taken on November 8, 2018 while the photo at the bottom was taken on April 8, 2020 during the coronavirus lockdown. Delhi has earned the dubious distinction of becoming the most polluted capital city in the world for 2018 and 2019. India’s capital city, though, has reported significantly lower levels of Nitrogen dioxide, CO2 and other pollutants since the commencement of India’s nationwide lockdown March 25.

Are these gains sustainable?

Let’s find out.

While the drop in Nitrogen dioxide levels is steep, it’s barely a dent in future global warming. The New Scientist report noted earlier states that a 5% drop is equivalent to 0.001°C less warming, a minuscule amount with the world headed for at least 3°C of warming.

With varying degrees of lockdowns in place across nations, road and air travel is highly restricted and industrial activity is nearly absent, plummeting fuel and commercial energy consumption.

The COVID-19 pandemic has opened a rare window of opportunity to analyse the positive effects of reduced air pollution from slowdowns in industry and transport, and lifestyle changes Imagine what these changes can bring over a longer duration.

The lockdowns will not last long, but sustaining improved air quality demand permanent changes, starting now. A number of changes were already in motion even before the pandemic through global environmental policies and actions, the rapid development of sustainable energy alternatives, and so on. But a clearer roadmap and swifter action is the way forward. Think increased reliance on public transport and less on private vehicles, electrification of mass transit systems globally, fast-forward replacement of fossil fuels with renewable sources, optimising agricultural practices to reduced carbon emission, and major lifestyle changes that rely on responsible consumption.

It should not have taken a human health crisis of this magnitude to make the air we breathe healthier. But enjoy every whiff of it while it lasts. Another recent piece of environmental good news was about the healing of the ozone layer. Have you read it yet? And with clear skies in abundance, you might want to gaze at the stars.

By Romeo Coutinho

Rationalist, truth seeker, full time writer, part time dreamer.

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