COVID-19 lockdowns cause global air pollution declines

Amanda Kelley, Photographer

 COVID-19 has had many negative impacts on people’s lives. However, it has not been completely terrible for pollution. Since people have not been out and about and driving as much, the pollution caused by automobiles has drastically improved. 

Many studies are taking place to see just how much COVID-19 has affected pollution. “Turnbull and her colleagues are evaluating CO2 levels nationally through radiocarbon analysis of grass from 120 citizen scientists’ lawns around the country. As plants grow, they sequester CO2 from the air. CO2 produced by burning fossil fuels has a distinct isotopic signature, and plants record that signature as they take up the gas during photosynthesis,” stated C&EN. Preliminary results suggest that fossil fuel emissions have dropped by up to 80 percent in New Zealand. More data from the Berkeley Environmental Air-Quality and CO2 Network (BEACON) show that pollution  has also decreased greatly in the San Francisco Bay area. The leader of the project has said that the biggest difference was during Rush Hour when there is typically bumper to bumper traffic. Data from this study shows that during the first six weeks of the stay at home order, traffic decreased by 45 percent and the fossil fuel emissions had decreased by about 25 percent from mid March.

Multiple new studies have found that compared to last year, nitrogen dioxide emissions have reduced by up to 60 percent over China, Europe and the United States. Another study found that particulate matter pollution has reduced by 35 percent in China (American Geophysical Union).

The levels of fossil fuel emissions have now returned to normal. But, these dramatic drops in emission levels proved to scientists how quickly we could slow the rate of climate change. Cohen, the leader of the BEACON project, said, “This is a pretty good model for what the world would be like if half of us were driving electric cars.” Scientists are hoping that now that they have data to support what they have been saying for years, perhaps people will begin to listen. Many people will argue that this drop is extremely minute compared to the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere. Although this may be true, if the amount of CO2 emissions already dropped anywhere from 25 to 80 percent after only a few months of automobile traffic being decreased, there is no telling how drastically these emissions could drop in just a year or two if everyone did their part. If more people choose to live a greener lifestyle, and if those who could afford it, choose to drive electric cars, the rate of fossil fuel emissions could drop even more and hopefully last longer.. This improvement may have only been temporary, however it will give scientists and citizens a helpful insight into how air quality could improve in the future with stricter emissions regulations.