Air pollution impacts fall as a result of Corona-related measures

By: Christer Ågren

An assessment by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) has estimated that measures introduced to combat the coronavirus have resulted in an approximately 40 per cent reduction in average levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) pollution and 10 per cent reduction in average levels of particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution during the month of April.

The improved air quality resulted in approximately 11,000 avoided deaths from air pollution in some 20 countries in western and central Europe during April. This effect came as power generation from coal had fallen 37 per cent and oil consumption by an estimated one third. Coal and oil burning are the main sources of NO₂ pollution and key sources of particulate matter pollution across Europe.

The highest number of avoided pollution deaths occurred in Germany (2,083), followed by the UK (1,752), Italy (1,490), France (1,230) and Spain (1,083). In terms of disease, almost 40 per cent of the fatality reductions were related to heart failure, 17 per cent from lung ailments such as bronchitis and emphysema, and 13 per cent each from strokes and cancer. The others were infections and diabetes.

Other avoided health impacts include 1.3 million fewer days of work absence, 6,000 fewer new cases of asthma in children, 1,900 avoided emergency room visits due to asthma attacks and 600 fewer preterm births. Most of these health impacts are linked to chronic air pollution exposure and will be realised over coming months and years.

Worldwide, the number of avoided air pollution deaths will be significantly higher because this study focuses only on some 20 countries in one continent and one month.

According to the lead author of the analysis, Lauri Myllyvirta, this health impact analysis also highlights how, regardless of improved air quality, air pollution is contributing to the load on the healthcare system at the time of the epidemic. Because of air pollution there are more people suffering from pre-existing conditions that make them more vulnerable to the disease, and more people requiring treatment for everything from asthma to stroke and diabetes while the system is overburdened.

Air pollution is the largest environmental health threat in Europe, with the average life expectancy in the European Union shortened by an estimated eight months due to pollution exposure. In 2016, 374,000 deaths in the EU were attributed to PM2.5, and 68,000 deaths to NO₂, according to the European Environment Agency.

CREA notes that the measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in unprecedentedly dramatic reductions in coal and oil burning and associated air pollution in Europe. This reduction in pollution impacts has helped alleviate pressure on the health care system during the crisis. Furthermore, the analysis highlights the tremendous benefits for public health and quality of life that could be achieved by rapidly reducing fossil fuels in a sustained and sustainable way.

As noted above, air pollution levels are plummeting as an unintended result of measures against the virus. According to Lauri Myllyvirta, this should not be seen as a “silver lining”, but it does show how normalised the massive death toll from air pollution has become, and points to what can be achieved if we shift to clean energy. When restrictions are fully lifted, European decision-makers can continue to implement policies to green electricity grids and transport systems in order to clear up our skies so we don’t return to heavy pollution.

Myllyvirta concludes: “As we are all anxious for life and business to return to normal, no one is looking forward to the return of fossil fuel pollution. It is vital for European decision-makers to prioritise clean air, clean energy and clean transport as a part of the plans for recovering from the crisis.”

Christer Ågren

Source: Blog by Lauri Myllyvirta, 30 April 2020.

The study “11,000 air pollution-related deaths avoided in Europe as coal, oil consumption plummet”, by L. Myllyvirta and H. Thieriot, CREA. Available at:

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