Air quality improvements from COVID lockdowns confirmed: Report

Unsplash/Geonhui Lee
COVID-related lockdowns brought cleaner air to many cities, like Seoul in South Korea.

Coronavirus lockdowns brought rapid and “unprecedented” improvements in air quality in some parts of the globe – but not enough to halt climate change caused by global warming, UN weather experts said on Friday.

According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO)’s Air Quality and Climate Bulletin, South East Asia saw a 40 per cent reduction in the level of harmful airborne particles caused by traffic and energy production in 2020.

China, Europe and North America also saw emissions reductions and improved air quality during the pandemic’s first year, while countries such as Sweden saw less dramatic improvements because existing air quality contained comparatively lower microparticle levels (PM2.5) of harmful sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO) and ozone (O3).

Dr Oksana Tarasova, chief of WMO’s Atmospheric Environment Research Division, explained that although the clean air development had been welcome for many people with breathing difficulties, the absence of harmful microparticles left the path clear for naturally occurring ozone, “which is one of most dangerous pollutants”.

“So, despite such an unexpected experiment with atmospheric chemistry, we noticed that in many parts of the world, even if you take down the transport and some other emissions, air quality would not meet the requirements of the World Health Organization (WHO),” she told journalists in Geneva.

Although human-caused emissions of air pollutants fell during COVID-19 movement restrictions and the accompanying global economic downturn, weather extremes fuelled by climate and environmental change triggered unprecedented sand storms including the June 2020 “Godzilla” dust cloud – the largest African dust storm on record – and wildfires from Australia to Siberia, which have worsened air quality significantly.

“This trend is continuing in 2021,” said WMO, pointing to devastating wildfires in North America, Europe and the Russian tundra, that have “affected air quality for millions, and sand and dust storms (that) have blanketed many regions and travelled across continents”.

The UN agency noted that air pollution has a significant impact on human health. Estimates from the latest Global Burden of Disease assessment show that global mortality increased from 2.3 million in 1990 – with 91 per cent owing to particulate matter, nine per cent attributed to ozone – to 4.5 million in 2019 – 92 per cent from particulates, eight per cent from ozone).