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Covid-19 & Air Quality: Learning Painful Lessons to Deliver Long-term Benefit

Updated: Apr 15

The Current Climate

The spread of coronavirus has been the cause of a worldwide pandemic of which many people have lost their lives. People all around the world have been instructed to stay inside other than those with mitigating circumstances in order to gain control of the virus.

We already understand that our actions can impact the air quality around us, and the long-term stability of our climate system. When we make major changes, it is an opportunity to learn new lessons about this critical system and identify key actions for the future. The Covid-19 pandemic is a painful experience for so many reasons, and we have a responsibility to learn as many valuable lessons as we can during this difficult time.


Exploring the Impact of Lockdown with MappAir® & the Zephyr®

At EarthSense, we’ve used our products and services to explore the impact of the recent UK lockdown on air quality, and, on the concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Combined use of our modelling (MappAir®) and measurement networks (Zephyr®) allows us to predict what the UK would have looked like over the last month given no lockdown, and compare that to the national network of measurements which have been taken.


The results are quite striking. Throughout the gradual lockdown from 15th to 23rd March, NO2 concentrations continued to rise in the UK during weekdays. However, our modelling suggests that there were substantial reductions from the levels which would otherwise have been experienced (a reduction from 32 to 23 µg/m3 on 19th March 2020 for example – approximately 30% lower).



Nitrogen Dioxide Concentrations in the UK

After the Prime Minister’s address on 23rd March 2020, these changes became more marked (down from 39 to 25 µg/m3 on 26th March 2020 for example – a 35% reduction), and reductions in the following week were often over 40%.Running our MappAir® modelling with standard estimates of traffic emissions across the UK, coupled with detailed meteorology, we have created scenarios each hour since the lockdown which show what the UK would have looked like in more normal conditions. We’ve illustrated this below for 3rd April 2020, with our best simulation of the actual picture across the UK contrasted with what would normally have been expected using our modelled MappAir® data On average across the UK, there was a 45% decrease in NO2 concentrations on this day.

Normal NO2 Concentrations vs. COVID19 Concentrations

Such substantial reductions in pollutant concentrations have come at an unsustainable price to our communities in the short term. However, our best estimates suggest that 20,000 people die each day due to poor air quality across the world (World Health Organisation), and in the United Kingdom, that number is about 140 deaths per day (House of Commons report). We also understand from the latest research that pandemics such as SARS and Covid-19 are more likely to cause death in populations with a higher exposure to pollution. We therefore must learn what lessons we can, and retain those environmental improvements wherever possible.


Lessons for the Future?

Following relaxation of the lockdown, many industries and communities will be evaluating their approach to remote working and the amount of travel required to complete key tasks. It is critical that we reduce total travel within our ecosystem, and therefore support remote working where possible. This is particularly important while our transport systems are reliant on fossil fuels consumed at the point of use, which produce emissions in very close proximity to the wider public.


Furthermore, we have now seen the changes which can be implemented very quickly when public health is in peril. We must understand why the substantial number of air quality deaths each year have not instigated such an effective response, despite the damage which is caused year after year.


The gradual onset of air quality health impacts, often over several decades, has certainly reduced the impact of messaging on the number of deaths involved. We do now clearly see however, that changes can be made to major infrastructure and societal systems when a greater benefit is appreciated.


How Our Services are Changing the Future of Air Quality

At EarthSense, we enable more advanced systems to be created to understand, predict and manage air quality around cities and countries. We see such capability as critical to smart and healthy environments of the future.


Forecasting of poor air quality episodes is critical to protecting vulnerable individuals and communities. However, such forecasts must be coupled with effective actions. In Coventry, we enable high pollution episodes to be directly communicated to drivers, to influence personal behaviour. In the future, could such systems be linked to a society-wide agreement on which journeys are not taken on such days? For example, could 20% of the workforce work remotely if air quality is forecast to be poor? This removes reliance on individual decision-making and could enable a much more effective set of interventions across the country. Such systems rely on both government support, and community-wide uptake.


Within EarthSense, we will continue to monitor closely the ongoing impact of Covid-19 on the environment within the United Kingdom. Our extensive network of Zephyr sensors, alongside the government’s AURN network will feed into our MappAir® model, and various customer systems for transport, healthcare and other sectors. Through innovation in this sector, we will look to enable some long-term health benefits from lessons learned from Covid-19.


CH4 Dispatches | Coronavirus: How Britain is Changing

Don’t forget to catch-up on of CH4’s Dispatches from 8th April 2020, where we discuss how air quality has changed and what this means for people living in the UK at https://www.channel4.com/programmes/coronavirus-how-britain-is-changing.


With best wishes to all those impacted by Covid-19, and health effects of poor air quality,

in these difficult times.

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