Air Quality News magazine last week published an interview with Professor Alistair Lewis, professor of atmospheric chemistry at the University of York, regarding his research into air pollution in the UK during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Professor Lewis, who has been at the University since 2006, told Pippa Neill about how air pollution research on this scale has never been conducted before and only ever simulated with models. This led Professor Lewis to describe this as a “once in a career opportunity” for research into air pollution levels.
His results confirmed what models have long predicted; less cars, trains, and planes leads to decreased levels of air pollution. This supports what has long been proven by models and Professor Lewis says that this real-world research has a “huge amount of scientific and policy value” compared to decades of simulations.
Reductions in air pollution levels could be either reductions in the amount of particulate matter in the air, or the amount of nitrogen dioxide in the air. Worldwide media quickly reported on the almost immediate reduction in nitrogen dioxide levels, which Professor Lewis says is largely down to individual cities themselves, where immediate and drastic reductions in localised air pollution could be seen. Reduced traffic levels have also led to reductions in particulate matter in the air; you have likely seen the photos of the Himalayas taken from India, suddenly visible for the first time in 30 years due to the reduction in smog. This has happened due to the drastic decrease in air pollution from large proportions of people staying home.
However, Professor Lewis goes on to say that the reduction in particulate matter is likely due to the fact that stay at home orders were widespread across Europe, and the actions of a whole continent have had a visible effect in reducing air pollution so significantly, rather than the localised reduced nitrogen dioxide levels. This supports the notion that improving global environmental quality is a cooperative effort, and not down to individual countries to impose their own measures.
It is his belief that air quality levels could be improved following the coronavirus outbreak; having seen the difference before and during lockdown, Professor Lewis believes people will not want to return to the unacceptable pre-lockdown levels of air pollution, and that pressure to improve will “mount very significantly” before too long. We can only hope that this is the case and that the government chooses to act on it.
Professor Lewis goes on to say that the UK is going into a period where new standards for air pollution will be set, and the “mood music” is that these new standards will be “stringent”.
Finally, Professor Lewis gives his verdict on the links between coronavirus and air pollution levels. When asked his thoughts on studies that appear to show a link between the two, he suggests that these conclusions could be a red herring, as it is “not new or unique to COVID-19” for viruses to be transported by airborne particulate matter.
He adds that, outside, a virus is also exposed to sunlight and oxidants, which are known to kill the virus.
The interview concludes with Professor Lewis’ admission that “the idea of returning back to utter gridlock because we’ve opted for cars is highly problematic”, reflecting the sentiments of many people who are looking for a less-polluted future. During a period when there has been so much negative news, it appears some have taken the reduction in air pollution as a hopeful sign for what is to come. However, Professor Lewis hopes that this will not be false hope, and that significant change might be brought about in the near future.
He finishes off by saying that lockdown has given us a chance to experience a major change that could not previously be envisaged, which provides a good opportunity for people to realise what less-polluted cities could look like going forward. Hopefully, this could become the new normal.
You can find Professor Alistair Lewis’ interview with Pippa Neill here: https://airqualitynews.com/2020/07/01/interview-professor-alastair-lewis/?fbclid=IwAR013tQGtXhjL7Cw0ME8H57yGwf4PYwT1WWpITtauV9UrGgWIiqrHe4Nq2A