COVID-19 brought countries around the world to a sharp halt. Under government orders or simply fearing infection, people stayed home, and travel by all modes of transportation dropped sharply.
With the sharp drop in travel came another sharp drop – air pollution. Worldwide CO2 emissions are predicted to fall about 8% this year because of COVID-19 shutdowns . London experienced a 27% drop in NO2 during four weeks of lockdown, with the worst pollution spots experiencing nearly a 50% reduction. In Kathmandu, where vehicular emissions contribute 70% of the particles in the air, residents could see Mount Everest from their city for the first time in decades. Paris, Lisbon, Bucharest, and Milan, some of the most polluted cities in Europe, experienced significant reductions in air pollution during the lockdown.
However, as cities begin to open up again, their air pollution is increasing dramatically. When France started to lift the lockdown on May 11, they experienced a resurgence of NO2 ,PM10 and PM2.5 back to 80% of pre-COVID-19 levels by the end of May. Budapest’s air pollution has risen to higher levels than pre-COVID-19.
The return to pre-COVID-19 levels of pollution is troubling for several reasons. Studies have shown links between air pollution and heart disease, respiratory disease, diabetes, and more. Not only do these ailments cause health problems and premature deaths, but they also increase a person’s odds of contracting a severe or fatal case of COVID-19. The evidence that air pollution contributes to the severity of COVID-19 cases and mortality rates is ever increasing, with a Harvard study finding that someone living in a county with one microgram per cubic meter more fine particulate pollution is more likely to die from COVID-19. Furthermore, it is possible that the COVID-19 virus can attach to air pollution particles and spread further through the air. With the risk of COVID-19 being very real, city residents are reluctant to return to public transportation services, pushing more people to cars and potentially increasing the number of vehicles on the road compared with pre-COVID numbers.
“Green Recovery,” the idea of making changes that will sustain and continue to improve better air quality as cities reopen post-COVID, is necessary if we want to protect our health. Low to zero-emission vehicles and accurate emissions testing technology, such as EDAR, will be an indispensable part of this green recovery.
Countries around the world are implementing tax breaks and subsidies for clean vehicle purchases, new taxes on high emitting vehicles, and financial support for researching innovative clean vehicles, among other solutions.
However, new vehicles alone will not be enough. We have to address vehicular pollution from both ends: new technology and mitigating impacts from old, high-emitting vehicles. We have to know what the vehicle fleet is emitting under real-world driving conditions. If we know what the real-world emissions are, we can make informed decisions to remove the highest-polluting vehicles from the road to make proactive improvements. If this does not happen, we risk allowing high emitting cars to continue to pollute our air and risk our lives.
We do not have much time! The International Energy Agency estimates a six-month window in which the green recovery must begin, or our opportunity to leverage the air quality improvements from the lockdown and build back better will diminish.