As cities around the globe enter another week of lockdown, the results of an unfathomable experiment are taking place right before our eyes – air pollution is going down and otherwise enduring smogs are lifting, giving a tantalising vision of a healthier, cleaner world. But will it last? Samuel Ballard reports

Many commentators have written about the emergence of blue skies, the return of wildlife and the lifting of dank smog clouds, particularly in emerging economies, as a consequence of the cessation of traffic and polluting industries due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Independent headlined a story with: “Coronavirus could trigger biggest fall in global carbon dioxide since Second World War, scientists say. ‘It’s as if we went back in time,’ says researcher, but fall is still far lower than would be required to hit most ambitious Paris climate targets.”

According to The Independent, Professor Jackson, of Stanford University in California, said: “I wouldn’t be shocked to see a 5 per cent or more drop in carbon dioxide emissions this year, something not seen since the end of World War Two.”

Blue skies and clean air

As more than 2.6 billion people are instructed to stay at home, London is just one of many major cities – from Los Angeles to Milan, Moscow to Tehran – to see its air pollution levels dramatically decrease.

Nitrogen dioxide has fallen, as has tiny “particulate matter”, which has dropped by between a third and a half when comparing the six-week period before the coronavirus outbreak (January 1 to February 10) to the period after (February 15 to March 25 ). The levels are likely to be even more pronounced now that we’ve entered a period of sustained lockdown.

Speaking to The Guardian, Professor James Lee at York University and the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, who analysed the data, said: “The air is definitely much healthier.

“[Tiny particles and NO2] are the two air pollutants that have the biggest health impacts on people. These are big changes – pollution levels are the equivalent at the moment of a holiday, say an Easter Sunday,” he said. “And I think we will see an even starker drop off when the weather changes.”

In Venice, the lagoons are a deep blue now that the regular water traffic has all but ceased, while in the US carbon dioxide emissions are forecast to fall by 7.5 per cent this year due to decreased use of fossil fuels, according to an estimate by the US Energy Information Administration.

Across the pond, daily emissions in the EU have fallen by 58 per cent, according to Sia Partners, a French consultancy specialising in energy.

Air quality improvement has been even more radical in emerging economies, with photos of Indian and Chinese cities showing a particularly marked difference.

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In Delhi, the Air Quality Index is known to have hit 900 during peak pollution periods, a number that is universally recognised as life-threatening. Its classification during the crisis is a much less scary “moderate” (between 51-100).

With the majority of Delhi’s 11 million registered cars currently stationary, the enforced changes to lifestyles are evident. But, will pollution go back to pre-coronavirus levels as soon as lockdown is lifted? Almost certainly.

What’s more, the United Nations says greenhouse gases need to be reduced by an average of 7.6 per cent a year to give the planet a chance of capping the rise in average global temperatures to 1.5C. So a short break won’t be enough to change our trajectory.

Short-term positives, long-term negatives

On the positive side, lockdown will have provided a powerful illustration of how much healthier our cities could be if there are long-lasting efforts to reduce air pollution, hopefully inspiring renewed focus on implementing new technologies such as electric cars and planes, as well as decreased commutes by car as more people work from home.

At Globetrender’s recent launch event for its Future of Luxury Travel Forecast, Tom Marchant, co-founder of Black Tomato, highlighted the protection of clean air and silence as an emerging trend, suggesting that “purity” will be the buzzword of tomorrow when it comes to travel.

“This idea of finding places that protect ‘quiet’ – we live with so much white noise – and having this elemental, pure offering – whether that is silence, air, water or the clarity of the night sky. Believe it or not there are places in the world where you can read by starlight.”

What was once a pipedream – or at least a dream to all but the most determined among us – is now a reality. Our cities are peaceful and our skies are clear. At least for now. But what will the longer-term scenario?

Peter Betts, previously the UK’s lead climate negotiator, now an associate fellow at Chatham House, told The Financial Times. “Closing down our entire economies for a period of weeks or months is not going to get us toward decarbonising. There may be some positive behavioural impact. But the real question is what happens in the recovery phase. Do we just go back to business as usual?”

One of the reasons to be pessimistic about whether air pollution levels can be permanently lowered will occur is that while lockdown is causing pollution levels to decrease, it is also responsible for a stalling of government business, including climate change policy.

Glasgow’s convention centre, which was due to hold UN climate talks later this year, has now been converted into a hospital for coronavirus patients. Governments around the world are dealing with one issue to the detriment of all others.

The momentum that the climate movement had gathered is now dissipating, which is a disaster for the long-term. Airlines, for example, are lobbying to “re-write carbon deals”. The Guardian reports: “Campaigners accused airlines of attempting to ‘dodge their obligations’, but the industry said it was ‘a matter of survival’.”

Countries that were behind on their climate targets – such as the US and Australia, which has recently approved a new coal mine – are now back on track because of the lockdown.

“The US was running off track for its 2025 target,” Glen Peters, research director at the Center for International Climate Research in Oslo told The Financial Times. “But if emissions drop 5 or 10 per cent then it is going to catch up with everything it missed.” In short: we’re about to see the biggest greenwashing in history.

Once the crisis is over, what government will want to purposefully derail its recovery for the sake of carbon neutrality? Especially once we’re in the worst global recession of a generation.

The newspapers are full of positive headlines and images of our cities being cleaner than they’ve been for years. Unfortunately, the truth is that we’ve never been further away from achieving our green targets.

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