News, Politics

Air Pollution Abates During Coronavirus Pandemic

By Shanee Goldman ‘23, Staff Writer

While COVID-19 has infected millions of people and spurred mass unemployment, the pandemic has also drastically reduced air pollution. The lockdown of countries around the globe has, quite literally, cleared the air.

Worldwide, air pollution is at remarkably low levels. Lauri Myllyvirta, an analyst at the Helsinki Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, observed that in India, the air is finally clear enough for people to see the Himalayas from their homes. In Delhi, the concentration of PM2.5 — tiny pollutant particles in the air that endanger humans’ health — has declined by over 70 percent. So has the concentration of hazardous gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

And it’s not just in India that PM2.5 levels have decreased; in North America, air pollution levels are also diminishing. With the continent on lockdown and fewer vehicles driving, less nitrogen dioxide is being emitted. Since the beginning of March, NO2 levels have dropped by 22 percent in New York and 33 percent in Los Angeles. Bans on travel, leading to grounded airplanes, have also contributed to the improved air quality.

Ironically, the environmental benefits of the virus have even saved lives. In China, where air pollution typically causes around 1.2 million deaths per year, between 53,000 and 77,000 lives have likely been spared because there are fewer vehicles driving, according to Stanford Earth System Scientist Marshall Burke.

Environmental advocates warn that reduced pollution won’t last long after the pandemic subsides. “The [environmental effects of coronavirus] are so short-term, and we really need sound long-term plans,” said Megan Severson, the state director for Wisconsin Environment.

These facts aside, Myllyvirta wryly noted in the National Geographic article, “in the long term, we shouldn’t be forcing people to stay at home to save energy, we should work on shifting to clean energy and transportation for healthier air.”

On a more serious note, now is the time to start investing in clean energy, such as wind turbines and using solar power. After this pandemic is over, and humans start adjusting back to normal life, we should continue being careful about the use of fossil fuels and emitting so many harmful particles into the air. 

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