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Opinion: After the Covid-19 masks are gone, will we breathe cleaner air?

Dr Karen Moore of the An Taisce Green-Schools programme wonders if despite Covid-19 and the lockdown, can we take some long-lasting benefits from it all – for the air we breathe, our health and quality of life.

Dr Karen Moore

CLEAR BLUE SKIES over the world’s cities have become a visible mark of one of the changes this pandemic has brought. As lockdowns have shut down factories and kept cars off the roads, global pollution levels have fallen drastically.

Potentially positive outcomes of this crisis include opportunities to make lasting changes that will save lives and increase our resilience in the long-term. Improving air quality is one opportunity.

According to the World Health Organisation, air pollution causes approximately seven million premature deaths every year, mainly due to stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer and respiratory infections.

More than 1,000 people in Ireland die prematurely each year because of poor air quality, according to the Environment Protection Agency.

The impact of the lockdown on air pollution levels is complex, but the general global trend was less air pollution. According to this year’s Air Quality Index, Particulate Matter (PM2.5) decreased by 44% in Wuhan, 54% in Seoul and 60% in New Delhi.

Other studies also show levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2)and particulate matter pollution over China, Western Europe, and the United States have fallen dramatically during the lockdown. In Ireland, pollution from cars dropped by 50% during the lockdown.

  • Read more here on how you can support a Noteworthy project to examine the scale of air pollution in Ireland and the impacts on the health of our citizens.

Air pollution and Covid-19

Air pollution not only causes or contributes to premature death but exacerbates a wide range of respiratory illnesses and Covid-19 appears to be no exception. Many researchers around the world are now reporting that air pollution may have significantly worsened the Covid-19 pandemic and led to more deaths.

As well as predisposing people who live with polluted air to succumb to the virus, scientists are also suggesting that air pollution particles may act as ‘vehicles’ for viral transmission.

A study of air quality in Italy’s northern provinces, that have been hardest hit by Covid-19, found a correlation between mortality rates and high levels of pollution. A US study found people who had lived in areas with long-term pollution exposure for 15-20 years had significantly higher mortality rates from Covid-19.

As much research on coronavirus to date, these studies are just emerging and many still need to go through the peer-review process, ensuring the quality of the research. Air pollution is an established contributor to underlying disease, although correlations do not yet prove there is an additional effect on Covid-19 mortality.

However, the findings of these studies when finished could have a significant impact on how governments choose to ease lockdowns in the coming months; improving air quality could play an important role in overcoming the pandemic and protecting against future outbreaks.

Scientists have said the fall in polluting emissions is just a short-term result of lockdown and they warn that pollution levels must be limited into the future as much as possible to protect human health both during and after the Covid-19 crisis. We cannot leave this crisis with the same levels of pollution as before.

We have to plan a sustainable recovery that will be true to the definition of sustainable development in ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

Undesirable pre-Covid ‘normal’

Perhaps unsurprisingly it is reported that air pollution in China has climbed back to pre-pandemic levels, led by an oil and coal-powered ‘recovery’. Data from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) shows concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) across China are now at the same levels as one year earlier.

European cities have also seen a big dip in air pollution during the virus outbreak, but pollution is expected to rebound as lockdown eases. In Ireland, as we move around more with the easing of the restrictions, we cannot help but notice increases in vehicle traffic.

There is an opportunity to leave this crisis with some things being better than before. We need a sustainable recovery that will be true to the definition of sustainable development in ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

Around the world experts, bodies like the UN, environmental and equality campaigners and local people are calling on governments for action to help retain the air quality benefits of lockdown.

Air pollution comes from many sources— how we generate power, manufacture products, provide services and move things and ourselves around. But a key contributor to improved air quality in lockdown was the reduction in commuting due to remote working arrangements and travel restrictions.

Our habits need to change if we are to future-proof against further viral outbreaks and help maintain improved air quality. Every day most people need to move somewhere or something, so perhaps we can start there.

An important factor that is not yet known is how people’s travel habits will change post–Covid-19. Will we avoid mass transport and walk or cycle more or rely on the private car? Working from home may become more mainstream and dreaded commutes a thing of the past for some. There is a need to act quickly and provide safe alternatives to the private car to avoid gridlock and increased air pollution.

Differences being made

Many places worldwide are acting decisively to re-organise their mobility networks in response to the crisis. To accommodate more bikes and walkers, while facilitating social distancing, temporary cycle lanes and streets closed to cars have been popping up in cities like Berlin, Budapest, Mexico City, New York and Bogotá.

Milan, in Italy’s worst-hit region of Lombardy, will help people stay out of their cars, by building 35km of new cycle paths that connect the 220km existing path network to make cycling and scooter transport, both foot and electric powered, more accessible. There will be incentives for purchasing a bike and scooters and new bike parking.

In Brussels, the city centre is a priority zone for cyclists and pedestrians since May and will stay for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, other city councils have reallocated road space to make social distancing easier for those walking and cycling. Among them are Berlin, Budapest, Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Mexico City, Washington DC, Brookline MA, and Hackney in London.

What about Ireland?

With the strong possibility that social distancing may have to be maintained for some time, what plans are there in Ireland to emerge from lockdown with cleaner transport options in place? Covid-19 Mobility Frameworks, focused on supporting people switching to walking and cycling and facilitating social distancing are formed or in progress by some County Councils.

However, the majority are only around larger towns and cities. Also, many of the changes are outlined as ‘temporary’ but for many locals and commuters, it is hoped that once installed these measures will prove so successful that they will become permanent. Dublin and surrounds are expanding 30 km/hr zones. Paths are being widened.

Pedestrian priority at junctions and enforcement of no pavement parking is being improved. Temporary bike lanes are being installed and, importantly, protected from cars and parking. Nationwide residents are writing to their County Councils requesting traffic diversions from popular active travel routes that have become so important during this pandemic. ‘Quietways’ or low-traffic streets that accommodate walkers and cyclists are also being implemented.

Some of these changes need a lot of support to ensure their success.

It is one thing to put up slower speed signs and quite another to actually see reduced speeds which require a mix of awareness-raising, traffic-calming measures and enforcement.

What will happen as lockdowns are lifted? What is planned for major congestion points like the approach and entrances to public transport hubs and schools? In Ireland, before Covid-19, space outside most schools was often constricted and very busy, sometimes to the point of putting pupils at risk of being knocked down by a car.

We were just starting to see School Street zones successfully installed around some schools. School Streets/School Zones allow only walking or cycling at school start and finish times.

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Already where car, bus and train journeys have been dwindling, cycling has been picking up the slack. As a form of solo transport, it has become appealing for many, especially in and around streets with decreased car traffic. Many places are planning for more cyclists. Dublin City Council plans to treble of the number of people cycling into the city.

But if this is to become a reality the council needs to improve cyclists’ safety around dangerous junctions, cycle lanes that come and go and bike lane car parking issues. For mass transport on buses and trains, there will need to be strong communication on the hygiene of transport and how to commute safely.

Other supports are coming into play for recovery though as well, such as to help the car industry recover and put more vehicles on roads. In China, some local governments have already announced subsidies for new car purchases and lifted limitations on new license numbers. In many countries, there is a strong possibility for an increase in cars and congestion and pollution post-Covid-19. Transport operators, public authorities, policymakers need to anticipate this and act before it becomes the ‘new norm’.

We now have an opportunity to ‘build back better’ and invest in the future, not the past. Our response to Covid-19 can be harnessed to create a fairer, healthier society. So after the masks are gone, we can all breathe cleaner air.

Dr Karen Moore is a Travel Officer with An Taisce Green-Schools. The Green-Schools Travel programme is funded by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and supported by the National Transport Authority.

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