As millions of people are sheltered in place to curbe the spread of the coronavirus in the interest of public health, the largest unintended air quality experiment is unfolding.
As in cities around the world an unprecedented number of us stay off the roads, stay home from work, and limit our activities like never before, the impact on air quality becomes apparent.
Air pollution levels are dropping at unprecedented rates.
In early April 2020, the air quality in Los Angeles, a city notorious for its polluted air, was among the best in the world – a feat that seemed impossible before regional shutdowns were ordered in California weeks earlier.1
This Earth Day, such an accomplishment seems bittersweet: that a phenomenal improvement in air quality coincides with the loss of million of jobs and thousands of lives in the wake of the largest global pandemic of our time.
An IQAir AirVisual special report highlights air pollution data from 10 major cities during periods of government-enforced shutdowns in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Representative of thousands of cities globally affected by the COVID-19 outbreak, the report shows just how much global shutdown and shelter-in-place orders have affected air pollution levels.
Read on to:
- Download the full report to see how air pollution levels have dropped in major cities following the global COVID-19 outbreak
- Read our analysis of the data – what we found and how to understand the findings
- Learn how to help keep air pollution levels low even after the COVID-19 pandemic ends
Download the COVID-19 Report
Report on the COVID-19 outbreak impact on air pollution in major world cities.
How do we keep the air quality momentum going?
Every Earth Day, many of us promise to do more to help save the planet. Now, we have data to help us decide what exactly that could look like.
Here are some tips for reducing air pollution levels even after economic activity resumes and sources of global air pollution become active again.
Choose alternative modes of transportation
Many of us are reliant on cars, buses, and planes, to get us where we need to go.
Unfortunately, vehicle combustion engines are one of the leading global sources of air pollution, generating high levels of dangerous pollutants like carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen and sulfur dioxides (NO2 and SO2), PM2.5, and ultrafine particles (UFPs).
Many of these pollutants have been linked not only to global pollution but also to long-term health risks like heart disease, lung disease, and premature death.
In 2019 alone, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that air pollution was directly linked to 4.2 million deaths and the loss of over 103.1 million total years of life.2,3,4
There are a number of ways to reduce air pollution from transportation that will also reduce your carbon footprint – here are some options:
- taking carpools or vanpools
- taking buses that run on clean fuel
- taking subways or trains
- using ridesharing apps
- using apps for scooter- or bike-sharing
- using a hybrid or electric vehicle
Some cities even offer tax breaks or financial incentives to encourage you to give up your car for greener commuting options – look into these opportunities to help make the transition.5
And lastly, consider limiting how many trips you make in general – every time you take a drive, you’re contributing a little bit to global air pollution. Here are some tips to help you reduce the amount of times you need to leave the house:
- Visit the market or grocery store once a week and purchase what you need all at once
- Designate a day of the week to run all your errands instead of staggering them throughout the week
- Don’t drive if you can walk, bike, or take public transit to your destination
- Ask friends or family to help you run errands if they’re already planning to go out
Move to cleaner energy sources
Shutdowns of global economic activity also means reductions of major pollutant sources like cars, trucks, factories, refineries, shipping facilities and ports.6
As a result, air pollution in major industrial centers like Los Angeles and New York City has dropped drastically. As our report shows, the widespread slowdown of economic activity can reduce fine particluate (PM2.5) air pollution by up to 60%.
This reduction in industrial air pollution could be achieved in the long run with cleaner energy sources like wind, solar, and even safe nuclear energy sources, especially if governments provide assistance or incentives to ease the transition.
Here’s a quick snapshot of the air quality benefits of a transition to a clean, renewable mixed energy portfolio of wind, solar, and nuclear energy:
- Wind. Wind power produces zero emissions and, worldwide, already prevents 200 million tons of air pollution (equal to 43 million cars) a year. Even taking into account manufacturing the equipment used in wind turbines, the average 2-megawatt wind turbine pays back its carbon costs in less than six months.7
- Solar. Solar energy doesn’t produce any air pollution. Some argue that the pollutants produced by the manufacturing of solar panels and the impact of huge solar facilities on the local environment outweigh the benefits.8 While not suitable for power generation everywhere, solar energy is low-cost and has many long-term benefits for reducing air pollution as part of a mixed-energy plan.
- Nuclear. Nuclear power stations don’t produce air pollution. While the risk of large scale nuclear accidents has reduced the acceptance of nuclear power, new safer implementations are on the horizon. An emerging nuclear energy source called aneutronic fusion produces power directly from reactions between elements like boron, helium, and hydrogen with almost no risk of radioactive fallout.9,10 It’s much safer than nuclear fission energy that uses uranium or plutonium and can lead to meltdowns like those in Chernobyl and Fukushima.11,12
This year, Earth Day is focused on two crises: the COVID-19 pandemic and the irreversible damage that is being done to our climate. Both threaten our health, our safety, and human existence.
The massive reduction in global air pollution during a difficult and challenging time is an unexpected sign that human activity is the source and can be solution to a large part of global air pollution. Armed with that realization, it is up to all of us to take the steps necessary to move toward a future with better air quality.