Smog has cleared as people stay inside and factory production is halted, but it won’t last.
Air pollution has drastically decreased around the world as people stay home during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as lockdown restrictions loosen and regular activity resumes, studies are showing not only that emissions will return, but also that greenhouse gas levels continue to increase and global temperatures are still on the rise.
At the beginning of local outbreaks, countries around the globe imposed restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Measures have included limiting travel, stopping factory production and mandating that people work remotely.
But how long will these decreasing emissions last? When our polluting activities return in force, will observed emission levels go back to “normal?”
Early 2020 observations from NASA and European Space Agency satellites showed how levels of these pollutants have dropped around the world. These observations were complicated by factors including weather, but scientists agree that dropping emissions were, in part, caused by reduced human activity.
“I think it is the result of the reduced traffic emissions and industrial emissions that have taken place due to COVID-19,” Eri Saikawa, an associate professor who studies China’s air quality and climate issues at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, told in an email.
Pollution bouncing back
Though evidence shows these effects won’t last forever.
In fact, air pollution has already returned to China’s skies as factories go into overdrive to make up for the time when they had to shut down. While nitrogen dioxide and particulate pollution decreased following the initial COVID-19 response, levels of these pollutants were higher this April than they were in April 2019, new data released May 8 by Greenpeace China showed.
Looking to the future
As scientists and Earth-orbiting satellites continue to monitor emissions and pollutants as human activities change with our evolving response to the pandemic, one thing remains static: this predicament can be used as a learning opportunity.
“I think it is time to reconsider the materials we use and assess if we can waste less and use resources more wisely,” Saikawa said. “I think youth are becoming more and more aware of the importance of the change we need to see in the society and I’m hopeful that this will move us toward a more sustainable and just society.”