Coronavirus is not a reason for more polluted air

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Coronavirus is not a reason for more polluted air

Air pollution kills millions of people each year. After Coronavirus, we want to return to normal - ‘business as usual’. But we could have worse air quality than before, if we do not make big changes. Amy Hall writes.

Now with the UK’s Coronavirus restrictions, I hear sounds I never used to. Birdsong, the train half a mile away. The noise from the main road around the corner is so much less and the air is fresher.

Air pollution is damaging to almost every part of the human body. But since the Coronavirus began, the nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution in many of the world’s cities has reduced by 50 per cent and roads are now much quieter. Even the seismic noise in the Earth, added to by vehicles and industrial machinery, is less.

But in Brighton, on England’s south coast, I notice that on most nights wood smoke comes in through the window – even with the summer weather we have. A 2018 study in the UK found that wood-burning stoves added 24 to 31 per cent to pollution in some of the UK’s big cities. Right now we don’t need to breathe that, but it is difficult to avoid if it’s the only heating there is. Particle pollution in the UK increased during April 2020. Gary Fuller is an air pollution expert. He says that an increase in April at this time of year is usual with the start to farming. This ‘makes spring the most polluted time of year in western Europe.’

On the roads, there are ways that can we reduce pressure on health services and reduce the negative impact on the environment and air quality. In March 2019, health experts for the British Medical Journal called for an immediate reduction in motor-vehicle speed limits. They said there were 35,000 non-fatal road traffic accidents each year.

On the Isle of Man, they started a 40 mph speed in March. The Isle of Man has now started to relax some of its Covid-19 restrictions, but the speed limit is still in place. In other places it’s very different, as drivers drive faster because of empty roads.

In cities like London and Manchester there are more cars breaking speed limits, and it’s not just a UK problem. For example, in New York City there are 51-per-cent fewer cars on the road, but there are about the same number of speeding tickets.

In many UK cities, including Birmingham and Leeds, they delayed the start of clean-air zones until at least 2021 because of the Coronavirus. The clean air zones would make the most polluted vehicles pay to stop them driving in city centres. In London, they have stopped the congestion charge, low-emission zone, and ultra-low-emission zones. Local authorities say this is because they want to make travel easier for key workers.

Air-pollution campaigners will want to make sure that these delays do not continue. There is now more and more evidence that the impacts of the Coronavirus are worse because of air pollution. In a normal year, dirty air is linked to seven million early deaths around the world.

Many studies find strong links between higher numbers of deaths from the Coronavirus and high levels of air pollution. Air is now cleaner in many places but people think breathing dirty air for a long time before the Coronavirus is making a difference. Some scientists also found the Coronavirus on particles of air pollution.

Reset the city

More and more cities across the world are now making streets car free to give more space for walkers and cyclists as people need to stay at a distance. These ideas could be a chance to get space back from polluting vehicles in the future.

The city of Milan, in northern Italy, is giving some streets to cyclists and pedestrians and it plans for them to stay that way after the Coronavirus. Traffic in the city is 30-75 per cent less. The local government hopes to stop car use going back up to what it was before, when people return to work.

Janette Sadik-Khan was a transport commissioner for New York City. He told The Guardian newspaper, ‘The Milan plan is so important because it shows a good way to reset our cities now. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take a new look at our streets and make sure that we move cars as fast as possible from point A to point B, but make it possible for everyone to get around safely.’

Less traffic on the roads may reduce pollution and make our cities quieter, but it is important to remember that all is not well. There is pain and suffering from illness and death from the Coronavirus. But also poverty and inequality is increasing quickly and will kill many more people. People now without food, shelter, and safety will suffer even more.

Often people with the least money live in the most polluted areas. One study in London found that 85 per cent of the schools most affected by air pollution have pupils that come from poor areas. And they are in areas with fewer cars than most people.

Any changes that come out of the Coronavirus must give power and resources to everyone. A return to ‘normal’ would be terrible. But a ‘new normal’ that continues to exploit people and natural resources would also be terrible.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)