Warsaw, Poland – As countries all across Europe slowly emerge from the limbo of weeks of quarantine, the (for once positive) impact of a months-long lockdown on air quality and pollution starts to become clearer.
Slovakia sees huge improvement in air quality
Due to the drastic reduction of traffic, suspension of public transport activities and, more broadly, restrictions on the free movement of people since a state of emergency was declared early March, cities in Slovakia have started to breath cleaner air.
In a recent study, the Slovak Hydro-meteorological Institute (SHMÚ) noted a sharp improvement in air quality, particularly in the country’s main cities, like Bratislava and Kosice, and other densely populated areas, along with a precipitous drop in the concentration of polluting particles in the air.
From March 13 to April 13, when the most drastic lockdown measures were still in effect, nitrogen dioxide concentration fell by over 24%. “A significant drop of concentrations in the period after the measures were introduced was noticed particularly at stations near transport hubs [and] during rush hour at the Trnavské Mýto station in Bratislava”, meteorologists wrote.
As all non-essential businesses had to shut down and the economy came to a near-halt, the suspension of Slovakia’s industrial and manufacturing sectors also contributed to the notable improvement in air quality, according to experts. A slight increase, on the other hand, was observed in polluted air particles generated by households considering that people spent more time at home than usual.
In Poland, more lives saved by cleaner air than lost to pandemic?
The impact of the lockdown on air quality, and contrast with the pre-crisis period, has been even more significant in Poland, one of the most polluted countries in Europe which concentrates more than half of the continent’s 50 most polluted and congested cities.
A report released early May suggests that the reduction in pollution and cleaner air as a result of the lockdown resulted in nearly 800 fewer deaths in April – in other words, that the number of lives saved in Poland was higher than the official Covid-19 death toll (less than 650 at the end of April).
The report also showed that Poland, which still relies on coal for most of its electricity generation, was one of the countries in Europe most positively impacted, with a reduction of particulate matter pollution (PM10) of 17% – the fifth biggest drop.
These results should however be handled with caution, as experts warn that the total number of Covid-related deaths is expected to be much higher than official government statistics, and note that pollution levels remained at the same levels in a number of Polish regions despite the lockdown – mostly due to the widespread use of coal-based heating.
As Europe emerges from lockdown, debate on air quality and pollution rages on
With cities across Europe starting to gather data on the environmental impact of the lockdown, climate activists and civil society groups are urging politicians to put environmental concerns at the heart of their recovery plans.
While nation-wide lockdowns are evidently not a desirable nor sustainable way to fight air pollution, public authorities should “learn from this opportunity how to regulate pollution when we go back to normal”, said Harvard University bio-statistician Francesca Dominici.
“The major public health benefits of reduced coal and oil burning, over just one month are […] a striking demonstration of the benefit to public health and quality of life in European decision-makers prioritise clean air, clean energy and clean transport in their plans to recover from the crisis”, warned the Finland-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) in a report released early May.
A recent study by the Center for International Climate Research also points to thousands of lives potentially saved across the world, particularly in China and India, due to the lockdown. Researchers at the University of Cambridge, meanwhile, have linked the deaths in coronavirus hot-spots in the U.K. and other European countries to greater levels of air pollution – suggesting that, while lockdowns can result in improved air quality, cleaner air itself also leads to stronger resistance and reduced vulnerability to the virus.
Other experts, however, are more cautious, and believe it’s too soon to determine the exact health impact of reduced air pollution. Sceptics also draw attention to the Chinese city of Wuhan, the pandemic’s epicentre, where levels of air pollution skyrocketed as soon as restrictions were lifted to quickly return to its 2019 levels.
Main photo credit: FLICKR/GREENPEACE POLSKA/CC BY-ND 2.0