The lockdown’s clean air and calm streets gave pause for thought

The coronavirus crisis has caused untold disruption in Europe and around the world as lockdowns paused everyday activities. But it has also given people the chance to stop and appreciate a rare moment when the air is fresher and the streets are more quiet than they have been for generations. The absence of transport has effectively given us a sharper sense of the impact of mobility in our lives.

The figures are clear: pollution has dropped dramatically since governments ordered people to stay home. Levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a pollutant mainly emitted by road transport, have fallen up to 50% in many European cities, according to figures from the European Environment Agency (EEA).

Notice the silence

The EEA data confirms what NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) first reported in China: a few days without traffic is enough to significantly increase air quality. Since other NO2 sources such as home heating or public transport have continued to operate, the sharp air pollution reduction seems to be mainly related to decreased road traffic.

It has been observed across communities. People say they have noticed the silence more. They have been breathing the fresher air. With outside excursions often limited to activities like cycling and running, they now have more space to enjoy their sport. The stars in the night sky are clearer.

There is even data to show that the lockdowns have changed the way Earth moves: researchers the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels are reporting a drop in seismic noise — the hum of vibrations in the planet’s crust — that could be the result of transport networks and other human activities being shut down. They say this could allow detectors to spot smaller earthquakes and boost efforts to monitor volcanic activity and other seismic events.

Saving lives

This extraordinary silence has stirred talk about how the lockdown may save more lives from pollution reduction than are threatened by the pandemic itself. Air pollution blamed for nearly nine million deaths per year around the world, and much of that comes from fossil fuels. Marshall Burke, a researcher at Stanford University, says the reductions in air pollution in China caused by this economic disruption likely saved 20 times more lives in China than have been lost due to the virus.

However, the global death toll from the coronavirus remains a matter of estimation. Some projections say that an unchecked pandemic could kill millions. That is also before taking account of the wider social impact of the virus and the lockdown: as economic activity halts and billions are confined to their homes, there will be a price to pay in emotional stress.

It will never be the same

But this is not about calculating whether the lockdown balances out the cost of pollution. It is rather that the crisis has highlighted the direct connection between air pollution and mobility in a manner that most people have been unable to appreciate.

This strange sense of calm will be remembered now that the lockdowns are being lifted: there is likely to be less tolerance for the noise and emissions from activities like personal transport. When we eventually restart our engines, we may not see our journeys in the same way as we did before.