There has been a significant silver lining to the otherwise devastating Covid-19 global pandemic. Carbon emissions have likely taken the greatest annual fall ever recorded with the clearest air quality in years. For the first time in decades the peaks of the Himalayas are visible from parts of India. In the UK, two weeks after the March 23rd lockdown was announced, Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) pollution in some cities fell as much as 60% compared to the same period in 2019.
The health outcomes of these carbon emission reductions and the subsequent increased air quality are substantial. A recent study by The Lancet calculates that in China the fall in NO2 air pollution in just over one month of the Covid-19 lockdown prevented 8911 deaths. In a new report by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) it is estimated that the Coronavirus shutdown has avoided 11,000 deaths across Europe due to the decrease in air pollutants. In fact, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that illnesses linked to air pollution cause around 3 million deaths each year.
The three specific sources of the Covid-19 emissions reductions
Understanding the sources of the Covid-19 specific emission and air pollution reductions is key to rebuilding society with low carbon, healthy and economically sound models post Covid-19. If we can do this, we can work towards a sustainable future whilst improving health and saving lives.
The three main shutdown emission reductions have come from transport, electricity and industry. In terms of transport, pre-Covid-19 road transport and aviation contributed 72% and 11% of the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions respectively. Electricity and heating accounted for 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions whilst industry sat at 21%. To consolidate and maintain the reduction of these three sources will continue to have positive health and environmental outcomes.
Large-scale emission reduction lowers air pollution concentrations rapidly
It has not taken long for the Covid-19 shutdown to have a visible and measurable effect on air quality and pollution levels.
Another of CREA’s recent reports states that in just thirty days there was an approximate 40% reduction to the average level of nitrogen dioxide pollution across Europe.
A report by India’s Central Pollution Control Board showed that “on average, Indian Cities had an Air Quality Index (AQI) of 115 between March 16-24.” However, air quality started to show improvements from the first day of the 21-day lockdown with the average AQI falling to 75 in just the first three days.
Environmentally, these improvements have put the world back on track for the agreed 1.5C warming targets of the Paris Agreement. In terms of health, these reductions in air pollution can also “result in prompt and substantial health gains.” according to Lead researcher Dean Schraufnagel of the Environmental Committee of the Forum of International Respiratory Societies (FIRS).
Studies of the specific health benefits of improved air quality
Poor air quality has adverse health effects. Airborne emissions such as NO2 can exacerbate respiratory illnesses such as Asthma and makes symptoms worse for heart and lung conditions.
Pre-Covid studies from comparable reductions in transport and industry emissions point to the widespread health benefits of improved air quality.
A study of a private vehicle transport shutdown during the Atlanta Olympic Games saw a 42% drop in hospital admissions for childhood asthma.
The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games saw similar statistics recorded when the Government imposed factory and travel restrictions between July 1st and September 20th. A 62% drop in air pollutant concentrations was recorded. Asthma related hospital visits dropped by 58% within 2 months of the government’s intervention.
In Utah, a 13-month-long closure of a steel mill led to a halving in hospitalisations for pneumonia, pleurisy, bronchitis and asthma. Daily mortality rates fell by 16% for every 100 micrograms per m3 of PM10 (respiratory / inhalable particles).
A 2019 report by the Environmental Committee of the Forum of International Respiratory Societies (FIRS) indicated “almost immediate and substantial effects on health outcomes followed reduced exposure to air pollution.”
“We knew there were benefits from pollution control, but the magnitude and relatively short time duration to accomplish them were impressive.” Lead researcher Dean Schraufnagel said.
How can we consolidate and continue to reduce emissions long term?
Until now action on emissions reduction has been slow as many believe the negative impacts of climate change will not be felt for decades to come. However, the pandemic has shown that when the behaviour change barrier is broken, momentous gains can be made for the environment and for our health in a noticeably short timeframe.
However, we need to make these changes sustainable long-term. With widespread job loss and people’s lives and livelihoods continuing to be threatened across the globe, Covid-19 is not the low-carbon, sustainable, health-driven economy that climate change campaigners have been advocating for.
However, the shutdown does show that individual behaviour change on a large scale has a powerful impact.
Experts in Australia point to this being an opportunity to reset our environmental future. According to Dr. Laura Schuijers from the University of Melbourne “hitting emissions targets for a short-term period is nowhere near as important as engineering a society and economy that can sustainably and prosperously run off low or zero net emissions into the future.”
We need both public and private investment in new solutions, otherwise some experts are warning there will be an emissions surge as economies recover. We need individuals and businesses, as well as governments, to take action.
How individuals and businesses can reduce emissions
Whilst we can urge the government to use Covid-19 as a pivot point to make long-term policy changes, we can also consolidate on the personal changes we have made during Covid-19. These include video conference calls, exploring local destinations, working from home, cycling and supporting businesses near to us.
Video conference calling has sky-rocketed during Covid-19. Using these technologies has shown that many interstate and international business meetings can be done without travel. They have also given a greater sense of connectiveness between distanced families and friends. Ongoing support of technologies like these can reduce our carbon emissions from road and air travel, but still allow business to grow and family and friends to feel connected.
In Australia, staying close to home for essential exercise has been mandated. Exploring local parks, picnic spots and outdoor recreational areas has shown there is much to be discovered within walking distance. As restrictions ease, continuing to explore local walks, playgrounds, cafes and restaurants will reduce the need for car travel and the emissions it creates.
Cycling has seen a significant uptake in Australia. The NSW government is encouraging councils to “widen walkways, close roads and create new cycle paths” as part of their post Covid-19 plan. With more bicycle friendly options, cycling is a viable way to reduce your transport and commute emissions.
Working from home has become the new normality for many. This has sped up a transition that was already gaining momentum pre-Covid. Removing the need to attend an office avoids transport and can reduce the emissions of large-scale office buildings. Work from home opportunities will vary depending on companies, but Covid-19 has certainly shown it’s a plausible option for many.
Supporting local businesses is highly effective in reducing road and air freight. If you buy something local, you are not asking it to be shipped from across the country or around the world. It will also help support the rebuilding of your local economy.
How do counterbalance unavoidable emissions
It’s not realistic to suggest anyone should give up their car or never take a flight again. We want to see family and friends in person, and some business transactions require unavoidable travel. There is also travel itself as a culturally enlightening experience. Most people will fly again at some point.
There’s also the day-to-day reliance on your vehicle – getting kids to school, shopping and other errands. However, if everyone works to reduce emissions in the first instance, then we can work on effective methods to counterbalance those emissions that we cannot avoid.
Reforesting as a highly effective way to sequester unavoidable CO2 emissions
A 2019 study published in Science showed that there is currently enough suitable land to increase the world’s forest cover by one third without affecting existing cities or agriculture. “Forest restoration is the best climate change solution available today.” said researcher Tom Crowther, “if we act now, this could cut carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 25 percent, to levels last seen almost a century ago.”
Based on this research, if you reforest each flight and fuel purchase that you make, you will directly contribute to the success of long-term climate change goals. This is good for the environment and your health.
At Reforest we are handpicking local, high quality, native reforestation projects that you can invest in within Australia. We want you to feel connected to the project and see firsthand the positive impact you’re having. We will update you on the planting of your trees, their growth and the habitats that are created for local wildlife.
We have set out to create a practical and meaningful solution to unavoidable carbon emissions. ON your behalf we’ll also challenge the retailer you purchased from to match your tree planting ask them to commit to future emissions reductions.
Reforest: Individual action to consolidate health and environmental gains of Covid-19
Covid-19 has shown us that by reducing transport, electricity and industry emissions, we can improve health, save lives and positively impact the environment in both the short and long-term. Let’s do what we can as individuals to build upon these emissions reductions. By using Reforest when you fill up on fuel or take a flight, you are directly contributing to global health and environmental outcomes. You are having a positive impact.
You are also showing retailers and the governing bodies that there truly is a need and a market for sustainable solutions and investment in renewable technologies.
To start reforesting your fuel and flight purchases, download Reforest in your App or Google Play store.