- Lockdowns to fight COVID-19 have cut air pollution across Europe.
- Nitrogen dioxide levels are 40% down on last year.
- Researchers say 11,000 fewer people have died thanks to cleaner air.
- Long-term air pollution makes some people more vulnerable to COVID-19.
Coronavirus lockdowns across Europe have reduced levels of some of the most harmful air pollutants by almost half, resulting in 11,000 fewer deaths from air pollution, according to a new study.
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The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) says levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) dropped by 40% in April and particulate matter in the atmosphere was reduced by 10% during the same period.
The absence of traffic has been a major factor, but so too has a sharp drop in demand for electricity, which has led to many coal-fired power stations being taken offline. In total, coal burning to generate electricity dropped by 37%. Oil consumption declined by almost a third.
The United Kingdom (UK) generated no electricity from coal for two weeks in April, while Portugal used no coal for the whole month, CREA noted. Sweden decommissioned its last coal-fired power station two years ahead of schedule, swiftly followed by Austria, which also went coal-free.
What this pollution holiday can teach us
Set against the terrible death toll caused by COVID-19, the number of lives saved is small - but researchers say the figures provide a glimpse of what life could be like in a future that is less dependent on fossil fuels.
They predict that the pollution holiday generated by COVID-19 restrictions will also result in 1.3 million fewer working days lost to respiratory illnesses, 6,000 fewer new cases of asthma in children and almost 2,000 avoided emergency hospital visits due to asthma attacks.
The greatest projected health benefits from the lockdowns are expected to be in Germany, the UK, Italy, France, Spain, Poland and Portugal, according to the analysis.
CREA says its air-quality statistical modelling, which isolates the effects of weather and changes in emissions, shows larger reductions in particulate pollution than previously reported. It also says its methodology demonstrates the impacts of coronavirus lockdowns more clearly.
What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?
Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.
Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.
The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.
As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.
No silver lining
“The COVID-19 crisis is resulting in widespread human suffering across Europe. Air pollution levels are plummeting as an unintended result of measures against the virus; this should not be seen as a silver lining,” writes Lauri Myllyvirta, a lead analyst at CREA.
He adds that the figures “show how normalized the massive death toll from air pollution has become”. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than half a million people die in Europe every year from medical conditions caused by air pollution.
According to data published by the European Environment Agency (EEA), particulate pollution alone caused over 400,000 deaths across Europe in 2016 with, NO2 pollution accounting for a further 71,000 fatalities.
Despite the health benefits of the temporary improvement in air quality from the lockdowns, CREA says that air pollution has still created extra burdens on healthcare systems during the pandemic by causing underlying conditions that make people more vulnerable to COVID-19.
The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2020 warned that air pollution is already costing the world more than $5 trillion in decreased productivity every year. Combined with the impact of climate change, the report concluded air pollution is challenging healthcare systems globally.