Before the coronavirus outbreak, emissions targets and climate change ambitions were two of the top watchwords across European – and indeed global – politics. Though the scenario is not ideal, pollution levels in the two nations hardest hit by the pandemic have dropped dramatically. The effect that industry and transport’s sharp decline has had on levels raises questions as to what lies ahead after the pandemic eventually passes.
In Milan, an epicentre of Italy’s virus outbreak, levels of the air pollutant nitrogen dioxide (NO2) have dropped almost 25 percent in four weeks. In neighbouring Bergamo, the average concentration of nitrogen dioxide in the week between March 16 to 22 was down 47 percent by comparison to the same week in 2019. In Rome, concentrations of the same pollutant are down an average of 26-35 percent compared to the same weeks last year. With Italy under a nationwide lockdown as it seeks to stem infection and death, the air is reaping the rewards of very little travel and almost no industry.
Spain has seen the same results. The capital of Madrid has seen nitrogen dioxide levels drop 41 percent compared to last year; one week after restrictions were announced, they dropped 56 percent. In Barcelona, NO2 levels dropped 40 percent week on week after limitations on movement were introduced. These developments mirror China, which also saw sizeable reductions in pollution levels during the height of the virus epidemic there.
Covid-19 and Air Pollution
While the figures point to what is possible, the way in which these changes have been triggered is unique. The entire world has turned its collective efforts on defeating Covid-19, with supplementary environmental benefits possessing purely scientific value.
When announcing the statistics, the European Environment Agency’s Executive Director Hans Bruyninckx said “The EEA’s data shows an accurate picture of the drop in air pollution, especially due to reduced traffic in cities. However, addressing long-term air quality problems requires ambitious policies and forward-looking investments. As such, the current crisis and its multiple impacts on our society work against what we are trying to achieve, which is a just and well-managed transition towards a resilient and sustainable society.”
On March 16, the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) declared air pollution to be an exacerbating factor for those suffering from respiratory infections such as Covid-19, noting that the level of pollution in many European cities was a hindrance to people’s ability to fight the virus. Meanwhile, recent studies have shown that air pollution is connected to a higher rate of Covid-19 deaths. According to EPHA Acting General Secretary Sascha Marschang, “The air may be clearing in Italy, but the damage has already been done to human health and people’s ability to fight off infection. Governments should have tackled chronic air pollution long ago but have prioritised the economy over health by going soft on the auto industry.”
Marschang went on to state “Once this crisis is over, policymakers should speed up measures to get dirty vehicles off our roads. Science tells us that epidemics like Covid-19 will occur with increasing frequency. So cleaning up the streets is a basic investment for a healthier future.”
Before the full force of the Covid-19 crisis hit, the European Union set out plans for climate legal obligations that would set a target of net zero carbon emissions across the bloc by 2050. However, the move has been criticised by those who advocate stronger action, including Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager behind the school strike for climate change movement.
The EU has a challenge in framing workable climate policy, with some nations such as Spain, France, the Netherlands, and Sweden favouring a 2030 deadline. Other nations, primarily in Eastern Europe, favour a longer transition target to the zero carbon deadline. Before the current crisis hit, the bloc had pledged that by September 2020 an impact assessment of a 55 percent reduction in emissions would be conducted. A workable target would then be set for the whole of the EU, which is responsible for 9 percent of global emissions. Prior to the pandemic, Europe has been at the vanguard of devising and implementing workable climate change policies. When climate change eventually returns to the top of the policy agenda, it is vital that the union maintain momentum to continue to push for workable and ambitious emissions targets.