Covid-19 cannot be an excuse for more toxic air
Since the UK’s Covid-19 restrictions started, I’ve been hearing sounds I never used to. Birdsong, the train on the track half a mile away. The constant background noise from the main road around the corner has dramatically decreased and the air is fresher.
Air pollution is damaging to almost every organ and cell in the human body, but since the coronavirus crisis began, the nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution in many of the world’s cities has reduced by 50 per cent and roads once jammed with traffic are now much quieter. Even seismic noise – the hum of vibrations in the Earth’s crust, contributed to by moving vehicles and industrial machinery – has dropped.
However, the coronavirus pandemic is not to be romanticized. Back in my Brighton neighbourhood, on England’s south coast, I have noticed that – despite the summer-like weather we have been enjoying – most nights wood smoke has been drifting in through the window. A 2018 study in the UK found that wood-burning stoves were adding between 24 to 31 per cent to particle pollution in some of the UK’s major cities. Right now it’s the last thing our lungs need, although hard to avoid if it’s the only source of heating available.
Particle pollution in the UK has increased during April. Air pollution expert, Gary Fuller points out that an increase at this time year is to be expected due to the annual start to the agriculture cycle, which ‘makes spring the most polluted time of year in western Europe.’
Back on the roads, there are measures that can reduce baseline demands on health services as well as reduce the negative impact on the environment and air quality. In March, health experts writing for the British Medical Journal called for an immediate reduction in motor-vehicle speed limits, pointing to the 35,000 non-fatal hospital admissions related to road-traffic accidents each year.
On the Isle of Man, a temporary 40mph national speed limit was introduced in March and although the island has now started to loosen up some of its Covid-19 restrictions, this remains in place for now. Elsewhere it’s a very different story, as drivers take advantage of the clear roads to crank up their speed.
Cities like London and Manchester have seen an increase in cars breaking speed limits, and it’s not just a UK problem. For example, in New York City there has reportedly been around the same number of speed tickets issued since the Covid-19 crisis began, despite a 51-per-cent drop in cars on the road.
In several UK cities, including Birmingham and Leeds, the introduction of clean-air zones, which would place charges on the most polluted vehicles to deter them from entering urban centres, have been delayed until at least 2021 because of Covid-19. The congestion charge, low-emission zone and ultra-low-emission zones, have all been suspended in London. Local authorities have made these decisions partly, they say, to ease travel for key workers.
Air-pollution campaigners will be keen to make sure that these do not become permanent delays and suspensions, particularly as there is now mounting evidence that the impacts of Covid-19 have been compounded by air pollution. In a normal year, dirty air is linked to seven million premature deaths each year worldwide.
Multiple studies have found strong correlations between higher death rates from Covid-19 and high levels of air pollution. Despite air now being cleaner in many places, it is thought that long-term exposure to dirty air before the pandemic is making a difference. Some scientists have also detected coronavirus on particles of air pollution.
Reset the city
An increasing number of cities across the world are temporarily making streets car free to make more space for walkers and cyclists, particularly given the need to maintain physical distance. These interim measures could be a chance to reclaim space from polluting vehicles longer term.
The city of Milan, in northern Italy, is reallocating some streets to cyclists and pedestrians with the intention for them to stay that way after Covid-19 restrictions are lifted. Traffic in the city has dropped 30-75 per cent and the local government is hoping to stop car use jumping back up to its previous levels as people return to work.
Janette Sadik-Khan, a former transportation commissioner for New York City, told The Guardian: ‘The Milan plan is so important because it lays out a good playbook for how you can reset your cities now. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take a fresh look at your streets and make sure that they are set to achieve the outcomes that we want to achieve: not just moving cars as fast as possible from point A to point B, but making it possible for everyone to get around safely.’
While less traffic on the roads may have reduced pollution and made our cities quieter, it is important to remember that all is not content and peaceful. As well as the pain and suffering directly related to the illness and death caused by the pandemic, poverty and inequality is rapidly increasing and will kill many more people. Those already without access to food, shelter, safety and stability will suffer even more.
The May/June edition of New Internationalist magazine, which is out now, focuses on the global fight for clean air. This is also a fight for equality – for clean air to be something accessed by everyone.
Often the most polluted areas are more likely to be home to people with the least financial capital. One study in London found that 85 per cent of the schools most affected by air pollution have pupils that come from deprived neighbourhoods and are in catchment areas with lower-than-average car ownership. Often it’s those who ‘benefit’ least from polluting activity who are at the sharp end of its impact.
Any changes that come out of the Covid-19 crisis must also shift power and resources towards the collective good. A return to ‘normal’ would be a disaster, but so would a ‘new normal’ that further commits us to the continuous exploitation of people and natural resources.
The May/June edition of New Internationalist is available to buy here from the Ethical Shop.
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