Technology

Coronavirus lockdown is having an effect on Europe’s air pollution

Satellite pictures showing nitrogen dioxide levels in Europe in March 2019 compared to 2020 (AFP)

The coronavirus pandemic is confining most of Europe’s population to their homes and the result is a demonstrable effect on air pollution.

Maps produced by the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) based on satellite data shows a marked drop in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) across Europe as a byproduct of the coronavirus lockdown.

The measurements were taken from 14 to 25 March and compared with the same period in 2019. The results are pretty striking.

Taking measurements over the course of ten days allows the experts to account for variability such as weather conditions or wind direction. The satellite used was the Copernicus Sentinel-5P which has previously measured NO2 emissions over China and Italy.

Nitrogen dioxide is a harmful gas released when fossil fuels are burnt and commonly comes from cars and other vehicles as well as power plants. With the coronavirus lockdown in place, economic activity and associated emissions are falling. 

France's levels of NO2 in 2019 (ESA)

France’s levels of NO2 in 2019 (ESA)

And the same time period in 2020 during the lockdown (ESA)

And the same time period in 2020 during the lockdown (ESA)

Maps of other parts of Europe, such as Spain and Portugal, have also been produced by the Dutch Met Office and show similar levels of dropping pollution.

Despite the drop in emissions, the current lockdown is far from a ‘cure’ or a ‘silver lining’ for the environment.

‘The problem with carbon that is not absorbed so remains in the atmosphere and absorbs the heat emitted by the Earth’s land and oceans that have been warmed by sunlight. They later release it again, further warming the Earth and increasing this feedback loop,’ explained Dr. Jean-François Bastin, author and member of the Crowther Lab at ETH Zurich.

‘Since the start of the industrial revolution, humans have accumulated around 300 billion tons of carbon in the atmosphere. On average, another 10 billion tons are added by humans from burning fossil fuels each year. The less carbon in the atmosphere, the less global warming.’

As you can see, imagining that we’ll undo all those emissions just from a few months of reduced activity due to coronavirus is unrealistic.

If you can't leave your house, your car isn't causing any pollution (Getty Images)

If you can’t leave your house, your car isn’t causing any pollution (Getty Images)

Scientists have said they will be continuing to track NO2 levels as the world recovers from the coronavirus pandemic to see whether the pollution returns.

China has already started to get back to normality as the cases of coronavirus are dropping and factories are starting to reopen and people go back to work.

‘For China, I think we have now very solid results, and that’s in part because we have a long period already. And we have first indications of a recovery as people in China are starting to go back to work. We will closely follow the development to see if NO2 concentrations will return to pre-coronavirus levels,’ Dr Henk Eskes from KNMI told BBC News.



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