Ben HaywardMarch 31st
2020

In what could be an unexpectedly positive side-effect of the Covid-19 outbreak, air quality across many UK cities has seen a marked improvement!

As a result of the lockdown measures introduced, the fact that people are spending less time in vehicles, offices and factories and more time at home, has led to a drop in air pollution. 

Data from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science shows large reductions in the amounts of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM2.5) in the atmosphere - with the fall looking set to continue.

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Professor Ally Lewis, director of science at the NCAS, told BBC News: "If you look at traffic volumes, they're still going down. And so we probably haven't reached the bottom yet.

"A few days ago, we were talking about journeys by car going down by about a third, and now it's nearly a 50-60% reduction. So, it's possible if transport keeps declining, the signal we detect could get even larger.

NCAS has produced a set of graphics levels of air pollution for 15th February to 24th March alongside an average over the last five years for ten UK cities; Birmingham, Belfast, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds, London, Manchester, Newcastle and York.

For PM2.5 (which normally comes from a range of sources including car exhausts) every city has experienced a dip.

N02levels

And for NO2, another key vehicle emission, it's the same picture - apart from in Belfast and York, which Prof Lewis says may be the result of more limited monitoring stations at these locations.

Scientists are now eagerly awaiting to see if other pollutants follow the same trends. 

Of particular interest will be another irritant, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) which come from solvents in inkjet printers, paints to glues and many household cleaning products.

Ammonia emissions from agriculture will be looked at too, although with much farming proceeding as near to normal as possible, little change is expected. 

However, the monitoring also gives researchers the opportunity to test realistic targets for clean air in the coming decade.

PM2levels

Prof Lewis said: "What we're doing is essentially looking into the future when we don't have diesel cars because we plan to take them off the roads. 

“This summer may tell us what level of PM2.5, for example, is likely to be achievable in the big cities such as central London or central Birmingham.”

Professor Paul Palmer, from Edinburgh University, told BBC News: "What we are unintentionally witnessing is an analogue of what we might expect in future cities when we rely more on cleaner electric cars."

Environmental Audit Committee Chairman, Philip Dunne MP, commented: "Coronavirus is not only having an unprecedented impact on how we live our lives, but also how pollution levels around the world are falling as a result of the global shutdown.

"The government has committed to a low-carbon future, and the Environmental Audit Committee will look to explore how we can avoid going straight back to dangerous levels of pollution once this is all over."

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