As global activity stops due to efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists have followed significant improvements in global air quality, which one researcher says will translate by reducing thousands of premature deaths and illnesses caused by continuous exposure to hazardous gases.
“One of the unexpected benefits of doing what we need to do to get the virus under control … (is it) has also resulted in big improvements in air quality,” said Marshall Burke, professor of earth systems science at Stanford University. “These improvements have additional health benefits. “
Satellite imagery has shown how air quality has improved significantly in major cities in China as well as in urban centers in Europe, the United States and Canada. Burke calculates that this will translate into 50,000 fewer premature deaths over time in China alone, due to just two months of stopping in places like Wuhan, where the coronavirus outbreak originated.
“When you clean the air, you see a reduction in mortality,” said Burke.
“It highlights the things we may want to change when we don’t have an epidemic. “
During the month of March, Descartes Labs in New Mexico recorded significantly reduced average levels of atmospheric nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a pollutant generated when cars burn fossil fuels such as gasoline.
“It’s a pretty good indicator of human economic activity,” said Krishna Karra, data engineer at Descartes. “The data shows that the differences are quite dramatic (March 2020 compared to March 2019).”
Images captured by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-5P satellite showed improved conditions last month compared to higher levels recorded at the same time last year.
NO2 is part of a group of highly reactive gases called nitrogen oxides or NOx. Short-term exposure can cause irritation to the respiratory systems, while prolonged exposure can worsen respiratory diseases, especially asthma, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Starting March 13, scientists at Columbia University monitored pollutant levels in Manhattan.
They recorded a 10% drop in carbon dioxide, the most commonly linked gas to climate change and methane, and an astounding 50% drop in carbon monoxide, according to an article published on the Earth Institute’s website. the university.
Scientists have warned about how the data collected by surveillance and satellite imagery is interpreted, as various factors can affect pollutant levels, including weather, wind, humidity and time of day. day.
The World Health Organization estimates that air pollution kills seven million people worldwide each year and that nine out of 10 people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants.
“What we have seen from studies around the world is that if you improve air quality, the most vulnerable seem to benefit the most,” said Burke.
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Scientists say improving air quality should not be seen as a silver lining during a life-threatening global pandemic.
But incremental improvements show the types of changes that can happen if we change our habits over time.
Burke said the biggest unknown is whether the changes will have a lasting effect. Historical data doesn’t say that much.
He said the crippling aftermath of an economic downturn generally leads to increased activity.
When government coffers run dry, funding is often cut in the first place from environmental initiatives, he said. Governments can also seek to relax environmental regulations to boost GDP growth.
“Most of the evidence suggests that if recessions reduce emissions in the short term, they are very bad for climate change in the long term,” he said.
“They are slowing progress in taking broader action on climate change.”
Miriam Diamond, professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Toronto, calls the slowdown “a very minor break.”
Once things get back to normal, “there is an increase in deaths from heart attacks,” she said. “There are more and more incidents of asthma attacks and a whole host of respiratory effects.”
She is concerned that, once COVID-19 is under control, the focus will be on restarting economic reports, which would be a missed opportunity to “reset the dial”.
“We need to return to a low carbon economy,” she said. “Now is the time to put money into investments that will help us in the future, rather than kill us. “
The epidemic teaches us about the repercussions of delayed responses and why experts matter, she said. “The pandemic has taught us to listen to the experts. We have the same type of climate change experts, but they have not received the level of respect. “
“What we can learn from COVID-19 responses is that rapid societal changes, from individual behavior to government interventions, to reduce these harmful substances, are possible,” said Madhur Anand, professor of global ecological change and for sustainability at the Guelph Institute for Environmental Research.
“I think seeing this change can help us better imagine solutions to the impending and perhaps even more serious crises to the environment and to human health in the future. “