Coronavirus: 'Stay at home' measure improves air quality

Levels of pollutants are dropping as traffic volume reduces

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Air quality across the UAE and the wider Middle East is improving after authorities urged people to stay at home to help prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Satellite data from Nasa shows lower traffic volumes have reduced levels of the harmful pollutant nitrogen dioxide in the Emirates.

The decrease in pollution can be seen on Nasa’s Worldview map, which gives daily online updates on levels around the world.

It follows the same pattern observed in many other countries affected by Covid-19, with shuttered factories and quieter roads proving the catalyst to a boost in air quality.

Paul Monks, professor of atmospheric chemistry at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom, described the reduction in activity in many parts of the world as “unimaginable in scale”.

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What it's shown is the potential for a low-air-pollution future.

He said the resulting fall in pollution was a “silver lining” to the coronavirus pandemic.

“You have to remember that people are losing their lives and I don’t want to be insensitive about the loss,” he said.

“But what it’s shown is the potential for a low-air-pollution future.

“If we were to move to a low-carbon economy, we would achieve these sorts of gains. That’s what air pollution could look like in future.”

Since the emergence of the coronavirus outbreak, and the introduction of measures designed to slow its spread, many cities have recorded a drop in pollution levels.

Wuhan in central China, where the infection first surfaced, has seen one of the biggest falls.

 

Its population of 11 million people was put under strict lockdown in January. The city is a major transportation hub and support hundreds of factories.

As well as being generated by vehicle engines, nitrogen dioxide is also produced by power plants and other industrial activity.

Last year, the environmental group Greenpeace named Dubai as the most polluted of eight Arab cities among its 50 global hotspots for nitrogen oxides.

Other cities cited were Al Ahmadi in Kuwait, Doha in Qatar and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.

In recent weeks, the UAE has introduced a raft of measures aimed at combatting the spread of Covid-19.

Authorities have said people should remain at home unless “absolutely necessary”, while malls, cinemas, gyms and many shops have also been closed.

Prof Monks said measures such as introducing more electric vehicles and zero-carbon or low-carbon power generation could help to reduce pollution in the region over the longer term.

The Emirates has already moved towards less-polluting energy generation, with Dubai aiming to produce three-quarters of its power from clean sources by 2050. Investments in solar power have also been significant.

Prof Monks said people could draw lessons from the current crisis, including looking at how they choose to work.

Professor Paul Monks. Courtesy: Paul Monks

He said increasing teleconference calls rather than face to face meetings was one way to reduce traffic levels.

In cities, vehicles can create as much as four-fifths of nitrogen dioxide, a gas that can damage the respiratory tract, cause chronic lung damage and increase the risk of people falling victim to infections.

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