Coronavirus and air pollution
13 minutes readApr 15, 2020

Coronavirus and human stupidity

Sustainability | Environment | Pollution | Climate change

In the wake of coronavirus, air pollution levels around the world have plummeted as never before, but that's not such good news.

Also available in: Català | English | Español

Yes, it's true, air pollution levels have had the biggest drop ever recorded, but that doesn't mean it's entirely positive for our planet. We should not cling to a "fictional" idea to force us to get "good news" during these days of confinement.

We must understand what is really happening, which benefits we will get from it but, specially, the consequences that the new SARS-CoV-2 virus, popularly known as coronavirus or COVID-19, may have on the environment.

Closed industries, factories and shops have led to empty streets, and to an almost complete shutdown in consumption and in the constant movement of vehicles. And this, consequently, has brought clear (momentary) benefits for our planet: pollution reduction, clearer skies and cleaner waters, like the Venice canals, which shine with crystalline waters. But all of this can have a rebound effect that we must strictly avoid.

The future that awaits us if we do not act

As the daily El País states, "in the current epidemiological crisis we find a foretaste of what awaits us if we do not take climate change seriously". And you may be wondering, what does the coronavirus have to do with climate change? Covid19 virus is an intangible and devastating threat to human beings that is unfortunately taking many lives, especially of the elderly and more vulnerable people in terms of health.

Once this epidemic is over, if we do not act accordingly and the whole world (including governments, institutions and especially society as a whole) becomes aware of the seriousness of climate change, it may be too late. Coronavirus and pollution are much more closely linked than we think.

Perhaps, in a few years, we will face another intangible and devastating threat. It will be the pollution virus, which will carry off billions of lives in the form of cancers, heart attacks and fulminating diseases.

It is not new that human stupidity has been at the centre of this global pandemic. If governments had prioritized population health over the economy and had taken the necessary measures of containment when it was time, coronavirus would not have taken more than 80,000 lives and might not even have been declared as a pandemic.

As Albert Einstein said, "there are two infinite things; the universe and human stupidity, and about the universe I am not sure.

Well, it is precisely human stupidity that has been at the centre of another global pandemic for years: climate change. If we do not act now that we have seen there is still time to save the planet, in a few years' time we will once again witness a threat which, that time, will have no end and cannot be stopped in any way.

Zero tolerance to pollution

Coronavirus has stopped the economy and the whole world, and upon the end of the confinement, the efforts to stimulate the economy will be enormous. And it is precisely the President of the United States, Donald Trump, who is already anticipating this and is all of a sudden destroying the most significant regulations against climate change.

But our planet cannot afford to continue being polluted, and relaxing the laws and limits set for taking care of the environment in the interest of the economy will not help. Absolutely not.

The first step Trump has taken is to give the green light to build a 1,900-kilometer pipeline designed to transport oil between the United States and Canada, which will undoubtedly have a devastating impact on the environment and on some of the indigenous populations that are still living in the territory.

And this is in addition to the new water policy –which it was established a few months ago– that allows rivers and lakes to be polluted, and the fact that it has also relaxed the standards set for controlling car emissions, with the main aim of prioritizing car sales. This means that, from now on, new vehicles in the United States will be able to emit around a billion MORE tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) over their entire lifetimes.

“Positive” numbers that invite us to reflect

Yes, in big cities and in most affected areas by coronavirus, atmospheric pollution levels have plummeted. But no, that doesn't influence climate change. And no, the virus is not helping nature to slow down global warming. Coronavirus has given the earth's lungs a breathing space, but we're talking only about a simple truce.

What is clear is that numbers and studies are totally undeniable –like the data collected by NASA satellites– and not only from China and South Korea, but from almost the entire world.

As we can see, the decrease in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) –the main pollutant emitted by urban traffic, energy plants and industrial processes– is spectacular. We are facing an unprecedented global decline. In New York, for example, carbon monoxide (CO) has fallen by 50 per cent.

Across Europe numbers also show a very significant drop in air pollution, both NO2 and nitrogen oxide (NOx), as well as tropospheric ozone and suspended particulates (such as PM10 and PM2.5). And this has happened especially in big cities such as Madrid, Barcelona, London, Paris, Lyon, Rome, Milan... And this is precisely what the images captured by the European Space Agency's (ESA) Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite show:

In Spain, pollution levels have been reduced on average by more than 65% and in large cities such as Barcelona (which, with only three days of confinement, halved NO2 concentrations), by more than 80%, according to a study by Ecologistas en Acción.

In Barcelona, not only has the reduction of NO2 been confirmed, but also that of CO2, which has been reduced by 75%, according to data from Environment Department of Generalitat de Catalunya. As far as nitrogen dioxide is concerned, last Monday, 23 March, 14 micrograms/m3 of NO2 were measured; a figure that is unthinkable compared to the average of the last four years, which was 55 micrograms/m3. Unbelievable, isn't it?

Pollution reduction has also been evident in Madrid (with a drop of around 70%), where greenhouse gases have been reduced by almost 60%. Concerning NO2, 17 micrograms/m3 were measured between 14 and 23 March, compared with the average for the same dates of 39 micrograms/m3, thanks to data provided by the network of atmospheric monitoring stations in Madrid and graphs provided by Greenpeace:

As a remarkable fact to take into account, the legal limit established by the European Union for nitrogen dioxide is 40 micrograms/m3 on an annual average. And, in general, during the last few days in Europe, the average values of NO2 have not reached 40% of the limits set by the World Health Organization (WHO), so they are largely in compliance with the established values.

India, another great example, has 21 of the 30 most polluted cities in the world –according to IQAir AirVisual's World Air Quality Report 2019– and one of the highest rates of respiratory diseases in the world, and thanks to the drastic drop in pollutants concentration the entire country has been able to enjoy blue skies.

To be more specific, PM 2.5 particles fell by 71% in New Delhi from 20 to 27 March (from 91 micrograms per cubic meter to only 26), and it’s precisely any figure below 25 that WHO establishes as safe. As for nitrogen dioxide, we are also talking about a 71% fall (from 52 per cubic meter to 15 on the same dates) and other cities such as Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Bangalore have also recorded historical rates, as shown by CNN.

How is our health affected?

Atmospheric pollution not only contributes to climate change, but also affects our health. As is well known, it can cause cancer, lung diseases and even heart attacks, as well as being responsible for causing acid rain. Therefore, just because a two/three/four month break decreases pollution levels, it does not mean that it also does it in our bodies.

Do not forget that, in 2016, 91% of the world's population lived in places where WHO air quality guidelines were not respected, so this led to 4.2 million premature deaths linked to atmospheric pollution. And today this number rises to almost 8 million premature deaths per year, a far cry from the number of lives the coronavirus will take.

To be more specific, regarding China, for every coronavirus death, 20 could be saved through a pollution reduction, according to an estimation by Stanford University researcher Marshall Burke.

What is the relationship between coronavirus and pollution?

In 2003 a study already proved that SARS (the precedent of the current virus), was much more lethal in the most polluted places in China. And today's coronavirus is not much different. This is due to two factors:

  • According to the international organization European Public Health Alliance, atmospheric pollution, by causing multiple diseases, makes us more vulnerable, especially at respiratory level; risk factor linked to a worse evolution of the patient.

  • Polluting particles such as PM10 and PM2.5 may be possible hosts of the virus, as has already been proven in petrol, carbon and tar.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that the most polluted cities have been where the coronavirus has threatened with more severe mortality: Milan and northern Italy; Madrid and Barcelona in Spain; Paris and the Grand Est in France, as well as New York and New Jersey in the USA, along with California. So, the relationship between coronavirus and pollution is clear.

World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) supports these facts with the report "Loss of Nature and Pandemics: A Healthy Planet for the Health of Humanity", where they claim that there is a direct relationship between the destruction of nature and the increase of pandemics like Covid-19.

"More than 70% of human diseases in the last 40 years have been transmitted by wild animals. There are well-known cases such as avian flu, Ebola, AIDS and Covid-19," says Juan Carlos del Olmo, the general secretary of WWF Spain. And the reason is because "the greater the destruction of biodiversity, the greater the risk of epidemics, because it alters the ecological and trophic chains and reduces the natural control established by nature itself," he explains.

The report highlights that our well-being goes hand in hand with the health of our planet. Therefore, air pollution not only seriously damages people's health in a long-term way, but also makes us more vulnerable to viruses such as influenza and the one we are experiencing today.

And this is demonstrated by an analysis from the Harvard School of Public Health, which it states that prolonged exposure to PM 2.5 microparticles leads to a large increase in the coronavirus mortality rate, since it "increases the vulnerability to experience the most severe symptoms of Covid-19," according to the authors. The results obtained have allowed them to prove that an increase of just one microgram per m3 of PM 2.5 is associated with a 15% increase in mortality.

Another study by the Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg, Germany, also supports these facts by stating that "long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide may be one of the most important factors" contributing to mortality from the pandemic.

So, a prolonged exposure to such pollution and suspended particles for more than two centuries is not solved by a few months' break. And this applies to climate change and global warming. This truce does not solve anything if we do not take it seriously.

What about climate change?

Yes, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have also been reduced to unthinkable levels, but this is not enough to fight climate change!

Let us remember that carbon dioxide plays a major role in climate change –unlike nitrogen dioxide which plays a main role in health related to air pollution. Well, it’s true that, in China, for example, CO2 has been reduced by almost three quarters.

But to really start fighting global warming, according to the UN, emissions of this type of gas should drop by 8% worldwide every year during this decade. The aim is to stop the increase in the planet's global temperature and prevent it from rising by less than 1.5°C.

Well, the impact of the coronavirus has plummeted energy-related activities, the burning of fossil fuels, industry, transport, etc., and has caused the largest drop in CO2 emissions in history. According to Carbon Brief report, the pandemic will lead to a reduction of 2 billion tons of CO2 (approximately 5% of 2019 emissions).

In the human history, the biggest drop of CO2 had been, so far, during the Second World War, followed by the recession and the financial crisis of 2008, among others. But we are undoubtedly facing the largest drop ever recorded. However, we remember that it is NOT enough. Therefore, efforts by all countries will have to be very great to achieve the necessary emissions reduction.

How to avoid the rebound effect

History is clear: the end of economic crises does not go hand in hand with pro-environmental policies; quite the contrary. A clear example was the 2008 crisis, which implemented measures that went against environmental policies because they were a brake on economic recovery (WHO air quality protection standards were to be implemented in 2010; they were delayed until 2014 and again postponed until 2020).

It is important that we try to avoid absolutely the rebound effect, as the planet cannot afford to have peaks of pollution that have never seen before once the world has been reactivated. The example is still China, which is already leaving the health crisis behind and not only is already experiencing spikes in NO2 emissions, but the country also intends to build dozens of coal-fired power stations in order to stimulate the economy...

Traffic, factories, industries and trips will be reactivated, perhaps above the usual demand, as if it were a matter of running 100 smooth meters to get back to normal as soon as possible.

But the very exceptional situation in which we are immersed has opened our eyes and has brought to light a reality that is still possible: slowing down climate change, reducing air pollution and greenhouse gases. Hopefully this health crisis will make us realize that we are facing the greatest global health problem in history, and it is not precisely the coronavirus.

As Corinne Le Quéré (a researcher at the University of East Anglia in England) told the BBC: Governments must now be very careful about how they restimulate their economies, in the knowledge that they should not be confined to fossil fuels.

Let's all bet on reactivating the world in a sustainable way!

💙And how can we help reducing atmospheric pollution?

Encouraging you, despite the adversities, to opt for electric vehicle and, for this reason, we offer an end to end solution for the entire EV charging industry, whether you are an EV driver, a business, institution or operator. Together we’ll achieve the change the planet needs!

Leave a comment