Pollution results less impressive during second European lockdown

Air pollution levels have remained relatively high despite the latest phase of coronavirus-linked restrictions imposed across many European capitals in recent weeks, according to data analysed by the Financial Times. 

The environmental benefits from Lockdown 2.0 are much slimmer than that of the spring lockdown, satellite data from Copernicus, the EU climate monitoring agency, shows.

Levels of nitrogen dioxide, which is produced from cars and trucks, have seen only modest declines — and in some cases appeared to increase — as the lockdowns took effect.

In contrast to the previous wave of lockdowns, when the level of major pollutants fell 50 per cent or more in European cities, there have been higher levels of vehicle traffic in recent weeks than during the spring. Even as the major capitals have closed restaurants, shops and bars, air pollution has not followed suit.

Corinne Le Quéré, a professor of climate change science at the University of East Anglia, said that the first lockdown had a much bigger effect in lowering emissions because it was accompanied by sharp reduction in car use.

“In the second lockdown the effect on nitrogen dioxide has been much less — about half the effect we had initially [during first lockdown],” she said. “This is directly related to the amount of miles travelled through the car, and how much the economy is paralysed.”

The trends indicate greater movement around cities as people have turned to their cars to avoid the risk of contact.

In Rome, nitrogen dioxide levels have fluctuated, the satellite data shows, as the city lifted traffic restrictions due to the pandemic. 

In Madrid, where there was a curfew in place in early November rather than a full lockdown, those levels were 46 per cent higher than usual for that period.

The FT analysis is based on satellite data for nitrogen dioxide levels for November 5 to November 14, compared with the same period during 2018 and 2019. Weather patterns can also impact the satellite readings of nitrogen dioxide levels.

Traffic data from TomTom also shows that some cities, such as Berlin, currently have more traffic than usual. Rome, Madrid and London all had traffic levels that were more than 30 per cent below normal levels, but much higher than during the first lockdown.

Road traffic has remained above March levels during November lockdowns, Charts showing % change in road traffic levels vs average of 2018 and 2019    

In London, roadside pollution data shows that the city’s busiest streets have seen significantly smaller pollution declines during the current lockdown, compared with the spring. 

“This sort of lockdown hasn’t been anything near as severe as the one we had in April and May,” said Simon Birkett, director of Clean Air London.

His calculations show that on Marylebone Road, which is among London’s most polluted streets, the levels of nitrogen dioxide in November were 21 per cent below January levels — compared with a 74 per cent drop in May.

That picture changes when examining London’s carbon dioxide emissions, which are produced from burning fossil fuels, including petrol vehicles and gas-fired boilers and heating systems. 

Transport use has remained high during November lockdown. Chart showing % of transport use during Covid pandemic compared to an equivalent day or week in normal times

Previously unreported data on carbon dioxide emissions in central London, analysed by the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, shows that despite roads being busier than during the spring lockdown, central London had a 45 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions since the latest lockdown began. That compares to a 52 per cent reduction during the first lockdown.

Carole Helfter, an environmental physicist at CEH, said that the decline shown in the data, collected from the top of BT Tower in Fitzrovia, could be the result of less power and heating in shops and offices that were closed as well as less central road traffic.

“It does look dramatic, but one thing that is worth stressing is that these gases are long lived, especially CO2,” she said, noting that the long-term impact on global warming could continue.

“These gases will linger for years and years, so we don’t have the hindsight to see, what kind of difference 2020 has really made.”

Prof Le Quéré, said the difference in emissions between the first lockdown and the second, showed the impact of people changing their behaviour, as well as the limits of that change.

“The changes that are affecting the emissions . . . they are not structural, they are not here to stay,” she said. “What we see from this experience is that just behaviour change, in terms of tackling climate change, can only do so much, not all that much.”

Additional reporting by Dan Dombey in Madrid and Silvia Borrelli in Rome

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