Reduced road traffic and industrial activity has cleaned up Europe's air, likely averting thousands of air pollution deaths, study argues
Restrictions placed on the economy aimed at halting further spread of the coronavirus have led to far cleaner air throughout much of Europe, helping to avoid an estimated 11,000 deaths over the past month alone, according to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA).
Measures introduced by governments to combat the pandemic have led to a 40 per cent reduction in average levels of the harmful nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution across Europe, as well as a 10 per cent drop in average levels of particulate pollution over the past 30 days, a new CREA study shows.
As a result, with fewer cars on the roads and major industrial facilities forced to cut production, CREA estimates cleaner air throughout Europe has helped avoid 11,000 premature deaths from respiratory conditions typically associated with air pollution, including 1,700 in the UK.
Measures to combat the pandemic have resulted in "unprecedentedly dramatic reductions in coal and oil burning associated with air pollution in Europe", explained CREA lead analyst Lauri Myllyvirta.
"This reduction in pollution has helped alleviate pressure on the health care system during this crisis," he said. "Furthermore, our analysis highlights the tremendous benefits for public health and quality of life that could be achieved by rapidly reducing fossil fuels in a sustained and sustainable way."
The analysis used detailed air quality statistical modelling to isolate the effects of weather conditions and changes in emissions. It revealed a large reduction in particulate matter levels since before pandemic outbreak, with the changes attributed to interventions taken to combat Covid-19.
It follows recent research suggesting air pollution may contribute to significantly higher rates of death in people infected with Covid-19, with dirty air associated with a range of heart and lung conditions.
The result of cleaner air during the pandemic should provide a clear incentive for European policymakers "to prioritise clean air, clean energy, and clean transport as part of the plans for recovering from the crisis", Myllyvirta added.
"Air pollution levels are plummeting as an unintended result of measures against the virus; this should not be seen as a 'silver lining', but it does show how normalised the massive death toll from air pollution has become, and points to what can be achieved if we shift to clean energy," he said. "When restrictions are fully lifted, European decision-makers can continue to implement policies to green electricity grids and transport systems in order to clear up our skies so we don't return to heavy pollution."
Meanwhile, the UK government today released annual air pollution data for 2019, indicating minor improvements in NO2 pollution at roadside locations last year, with pollution far higher during the working week compared to the weekend. However, there was a slight uptick in fine particle pollution recorded in 2019 compared to the previous year at both roadside and urban background monitoring sites, the statistics show.
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