Air Quality – The shape of things to come

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect people throughout the world, it is providing us with some interesting insight into the impact of changing lifestyles and economies on the air we are breathing.

In the UK, the government’s measures to slow down the spread of the virus are already showing positive results. There has been a corresponding drop in traffic in both cities and urban areas along with reduced industrial and commercial activity, leading to a significant decline in air-polluting emissions. The bizarre images of empty city centres, roads and motorways give us an unprecedented glimpse into what happens to the air we breathe when we drastically and suddenly cut emissions.

According to Vivacity Labs, which has been monitoring the impact on road usage in towns, cities and roads during the Covid-19 outbreak, there has been a 60% reduction in traffic within the first two weeks. The company reports that:

• Pedestrians – reduced by 80%
• Car traffic – dropped by 60%
• Cyclists – now dropped by 75%
• Light goods vehicles -dropped by 45%
• Motorbikes – dropped by 65%
• HGVs – dropped by 40%
• Buses – dropped by 40% since the lockdown, indicating significant reductions in public transport services

But what is the impact on air quality of these traffic reductions? Air Quality News, the UK’s air quality and emissions news and information site, has analysed Defra’s monitoring data for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in major cities, comparing 24 March 2020 with the comparable day in 2019. The mean averages for each city studied are below:

Air Quality News also reports that despite these decreases, analysis of the hourly data shows that rush hour was still a busy for time for commuters with Manchester experiencing a peak of 77µg/m3 and Birmingham, 57µg/m3.

On the Popular Science website, Helen Worden, an atmospheric scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), has commented that: “It’s important to keep in mind that the weather can affect how much pollution settles over an area, so further analysis is needed to tell how much of that decrease is due to the coronavirus response and how much is just variation in meteorology.

In addition, we must remember that although we are hopefully in just a short term situation this is unlikely to be sustained over the longer term. For example, as can be now seen in China as it emerges from the virus-caused shutdown, emissions have started to increase. Lauri Myllyvirta, an analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, has said: “China has more or less returned to normal levels [of pollution] and we might even be seeing a bit of rebound above those levels as factories make up for lost time.”

This is likely to be a trend that is also experienced in the UK as government lockdown restrictions are lifted.

Clean Air Zones Delayed
An unfortunate side effect of the coronavirus crisis is that the planned clean air zones in cities such as Birmingham, Leeds and Oxford have been delayed. In the case of Birmingham, the council has asked the government’s Joint Air Quality Unit to delay the launch of the zone, which was due to come into effect before the end of summer 2020, until at least the end of the year. Similarly, Oxford has been delayed to 2021 and Leeds has been delayed until further notice. However, other planned Clean Air Zones for Bath, Bristol, Portsmouth and Manchester (TfGM) remain on track to go live in 2021.

Cllr Waseem Zaffar, Birmingham’s cabinet member for transport and environment said: ‘Air pollution remains an on-going concern for this city. Once we have addressed coronavirus in the immediate term, poor air quality will continue to be a significant issue in the long term, and we should not be complacent. We believe that a Clean Air Zone in Birmingham remains the most effective way of making a sustainable improvement to Birmingham’s air quality and we will continue to put in place the infrastructure required to support it.”

According to Tim Daniels of Videalert, one of the UK’s leading suppliers of intelligent traffic management and enforcement solutions: “The massive changes in the behaviour of drivers that have taken place as a result of the current lockdown reinforces the vital role that clean air and low emission zones will have on air quality over the longer term. The crisis will also undoubtedly cause businesses to re-assess whether a larger proportion of employees can work from home as opposed to travelling to the office which will also contribute positively to reducing air pollution. As part of the Marston Holdings group, Videalert is at the forefront in the development of cost effective and efficient solutions to monitor, manage and enforce these zones.”

Watch out for details of our forthcoming webinar that will discuss the merits of Clean Air Zones and Low Emission Zones as the country comes out of the current lockdown and some normality returns with a desperate need to get the economy working again.

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