Coronavirus vs. the Climate: The effects of COVID-19 on the environment

23 April 2020

The world is in lockdown and it’s dramatically affecting the climate. The reason? Across the globe, governments are slowing the spread of COVID-19 by imposing drastic restrictions on people’s movements.

As you know, in the UK we’re being told to stay at home, and only to go out for essential work, food or health reasons. Meeting up with others, even friends and family, is forbidden for the moment and we’ve been told to stay two metres away from other people at all times.

These are uncertain and difficult times for us all, as individuals and as a society, but the effect the global restrictions have had on the climate is remarkable. In the space of just a few weeks, as people drive less and work from home where possible, we’re seeing improvements in air and water quality across the world.

Let’s have a look at just some of the regions in the world that are seeing change, from better air quality in London and Wuhan, to clearer waters in Venice and the Ganges.

 

Cleaner Air

Cleaner air in UK cities

London, Manchester, Birmingham and other cities across the UK have seen a huge decline in toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels, according to a study by the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS).

Nitrogen dioxide is a harmful gas released when fossil fuels are burnt, usually by power plants and motor vehicles. Many of the activities that generate nitrogen dioxide are also responsible for the world’s carbon emissions and the current climate crisis.

Comparing recent pollution levels to the average from the same period in the previous five years, Professor James Lee from NCAS says: “The air is definitely much healthier”. You can see what he means in the chart below.

Nitrogen dioxide levels in UK cities

Graph showing the drop in Nitrogen dioxide in U.K. cities due to Coronavirus lockdown.

Source: ncas.ac.uk

 

Director of Science at NCAS, Professor Ally Lewis, comments: “In the midst of a respiratory health crisis such as this, better air quality can only have a small effect, but it will undoubtedly be positive […] It is further motivation, as if it were needed, to stay inside and not travel unless necessary, since the emissions and pollution avoided makes a helpful difference.

Road traffic accounts for about 80% of nitrogen dioxide emissions in the UK, according to Paul Monks, Professor of Air Pollution at the University of Leicester, and former chair of the UK government’s science advisory committee on air quality.

The average diesel car spews out 52mg of polluting gas for every kilometre it travels, so it’s no surprise that the lockdown-induced reduction in traffic is leading to a substantial improvement in air quality.

 

Fall in pollution over northern Italy

Illustration of Nitrogen dioxide over Italy due to Coronavirus. Source: ESA.int

Source: esa.int

 

As in the UK, Italy has significantly slowed economic and industrial activity, shutting all its shops except food stores, pharmacies and stores selling essential items.

Since the lockdown began in Italy on 9 March, satellite images taken by the European Space Agency have shown a dramatic drop in pollution in the skies over the north of the country, the area which is most densely populated and commercially developed. For example, the levels of toxic nitrogen dioxide around Milan, in Lombardy, have dropped rapidly.

 

Air quality improvements in Madrid

In Madrid, average nitrogen dioxide levels decreased by 56% week-on-week after the Spanish government banned all non-essential travel on 14 March.

 

Less polluted air over China

Source: ESA.int

 

In late January, Wuhan was the first place in the world to introduce lockdown measures to deal with the emerging pandemic. NASA researchers began observing the environmental impacts of the restrictions and saw visible results. When they compared nitrogen dioxide values in 2020 with the average amounts from the same time of year from 2005-19, they found that levels of the toxic gas were 10-30% lower.

 

Clearer Waters

Visibly clearer water in Venice

It’s not just air quality that’s been improving. Fish are now visible in those famously over-populated Venetian canals since Italy's efforts to limit the coronavirus have curtailed boat traffic.

 

Clearer water in Venice canals due to Coronavirus. Source: Getty Images; Marco Capovilla

A 2019 Venice transportation study by engineeringrome.org determined that dioxins from engine emissions had contaminated the canal waters, creating a “murky contaminated mix”. It suggested that “any decrease in traffic would help decrease the water pollution of the lagoon” and improve the surrounding ecosystems.

And, owing to the restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, that’s exactly what‘s happened.

 

It’s now safe to bathe in the Ganges

India began its own lockdown on 24 March when its 1.3 billion people were instructed to stay home. Since then, the health of the Ganges River has improved significantly.

According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the lockdown has meant a reduction in industrial waste dumping. Readings of oxygen, biochemical and pH levels show the water quality has increased so markedly that the river water is now “suitable for bathing and propagation of wildlife and fisheries”. Previously, pollution levels had been so high that those activities had been deemed “unsafe”.

 

There is another way

The past few weeks and months have been extremely challenging for people and businesses, both in the UK and across the globe. The coronavirus pandemic is continuing to change the way we all live and work.

We hope that humanity can emerge from this awful situation having learned a lesson about our power to tackle the climate crisis.

The incredible bravery of key workers, fighting to keep us all safe, is inspiring – proving that we can all make a difference to our planet’s future by working together and supporting one another. We’re all in this together.

We hope that we all can we carry this can-do mentality into the fight against climate change and build great lives for ourselves and each other in harmony with the climate.

 

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Remember, we are being asked to self-isolate to both avoid the coronavirus, protect ourselves and the vulnerable members of our communities and prevent the spread.

We are closely watching and following the government’s latest guidance on coronavirus/COVID-19. If you have any concerns about your energy supply or topping up your pre-pay meter go to our Coronavirus help page.

If you have concerns about Coronavirus and need advice on symptoms and how to stay safe, keep an eye on the gov.uk website.

 

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