Air pollution in London rising to pre-pandemic levels

Air pollution resurges in London, Paris and Rome as coronavirus lockdowns ease in European capital cities and levels of nitrogen dioxide return to almost pre-pandemic levels

  • New report reveals a rise of toxic nitrogen dioxide in over 20 European cities   
  • NO2 from burning diesel and petrol vehicles is linked to respiratory problems
  • More cars on the road as a result of lockdown being eased has led to the rise
  • But a rise in NO2 could be avoidede if we made a transition to electric vehicles

Air pollution levels in London, Paris, Rome and other European cities have all resurged as a result of coronavirus lockdowns being eased, a new report reveals.

A benefit of the lockdowns had been low pollution levels and clear skies due to fewer cars on the roads, the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) reports.

But the gradual easing of the measures over the last month has resulted in an increase in deadly nitrogen dioxide in the air in more than 20 European cities.

In London, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentrations fell during the lockdown by as much as 33 per cent, or 10 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3).

NO2 readings reached a low in the UK’s capital at around late April in the midst of the county’s lockdown measures. 

But the city has since registered a 34 per cent rise in NO2 from the lowest air quality reading during lockdown to the most recent reading this month, coinciding with gradual lifting of the government’s social distancing restrictions. 

Toxic NO2 in the air, which is linked with respiratory problems and inflammatory diseases, reached a low of around 20 µg/m3 in late April, CREA said.

CREA data shows a fall in NO2 levels in London becoming particularly pronounced after the March 24 nationwide lockdown measures. NO2 levels reached a low of around 20 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3) in late April before steadily rising 

But like other congested and densely populated urban centres in Europe, rebounds to ‘pre-Covid-19 levels have already begun’ – with Paris the most pronounced of all.

‘Paris has experienced the largest increase in pollution from the cleanest period during lockdown, while Budapest and Oslo have exceeded their pre-crisis levels, when controlling for weather,’ said Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at CREA.

‘The return of pollution is likely to put COVID-19 patients at more risk, as research, not yet peer-reviewed, has found a link between NO2 exposure and deaths from Covid-19.’

CREA selected all European cities with more than 1 million population for which the EU’s European Environment Agency publishes air quality measurements.

Graphic shows the latest (dark blue) and lowest (light blue) NO2 readings since the lockdown measures were implemented in 19 of the European cities, as measured in micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3). The dot shows each city’s ‘rebound’ –how many µg/m3 NO2 levels have jumped back since restrictions were lifted

Air pollution visible over London. The city has registered a 34 per cent rise in NO2 from the lowest reading during lockdown to the most recent reading

Instruments on the ground and satellites orbiting Earth collect information about what is in our air. 

27 European cities experienced falls in NO2 levels during lockdowns aimed at reducing the spread of the virus, compared average levels for similar times of the year for 2017 to 2019, according to CREA figures. 

Paris has seen the largest increase in deadly nitrogen dioxide, which comes from burning diesel and petrol in car engines and is linked to respiratory problems and reduced immunity to lung infections.

Nitrogen dioxide pollution is responsible for 1,300 new cases of child asthma and 4,300 deaths in Paris annually, CREA said.

In the French capital, since lockdown was lifted, NO2 pollution levels have more than doubled from the cleanest 30-day period during lockdown.

Paris NO2 readings show a rebound of 16 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3) in the air since the lowest levels recorded during lockdown

Nitrogen dioxide pollution is responsible for 1,300 new cases of child asthma and 4,300 deaths in Paris annually

Rome NO2 readings show a rebound of 6 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3) in the air since the lowest levels recorded during lockdown

Rome seen from Pincio terrace in Villa Borghese. In the background the St. Peter’s Basilica the smog is evident on January 16, 2020

The city reached a low of around 15 µg/m3 in April before adding an additional 16 µg/m3 to the air by late June.

Aside from Paris, Brussels, Milan, Bucharest and Oslo have also seen sizeable increases, or ‘rebounds’, in NO2 concentrations – 14, 14, 13 and 12 µg/m3, respectively.

‘Perhaps not surprisingly, cities with the largest rebounds such as Paris, Brussels and Bucharest are precisely those with the largest initial reduction of NO2 levels,’ CREA said.

‘In other terms, and from a policy perspective, these cities are those where new transport-related measures could bring about the largest air quality improvement.’

London registered a 34 per cent rise in NO2 from the lowest lockdown level to the most recent reading, by 7 µg/m3, while Rome registered a 52 per cent rise, up 6 µg/m3. 

Satellite-based nitrogen dioxide pollution measurements show the drop in pollution in April-May 2019 (left) and 2020 (right)

27 European cities experienced falls in NO2 levels during lockdowns aimed at reducing the spread of the virus, compared average levels for similar times of the year for 2017 to 2019, according to CREA figures

Out of 23 European cities, Berlin registered the smallest rise in NO2 pollution – a 4 per cent increase of just 1 µg/m3. 

In the European Union, 72,000 deaths per year are attributed to NO2 exposure, which primarily gets in the air from the burning of fuel.

NO2 forms from emissions from cars, trucks and buses, power plants and off-road equipment and breathing air with a high concentration of NO2 can irritate airways in the human respiratory system.

In the long term, NO2 may contribute to the development of asthma and potentially increase susceptibility to respiratory infections.

People with asthma, as well as children and the elderly are generally at greater risk for the very worst health effects of NO2, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

CREA said an increase in pollution should not be ‘an inevitable price to be paid for freedom of movement’ because of clean transport options like electric cars.

European countries are planning a total ban on vehicles that burn fossil fuels within the next two decades 

In the UK, a ban on petrol and diesel cars will come into effect by 2035, to be replaced by electric vehicles.

The Netherlands, Norway, France, Sweden, Ireland are among also plan to phase-out fossil fuel-burning vehicles between 2025 and 2040.

Just last month, British air quality scientists recorded a fall in NO2 but a rise in particulate matter in London air since the coronavirus lockdown began. 

Levels of microscopic particles known as PM10 and PM2.5 were higher after the lockdown was introduced than at any other time so far this year.  

Revealed: MailOnline dissects the impact greenhouse gases have on the planet – and what is being done to stop air pollution


Carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the biggest contributors to global warming. After the gas is released into the atmosphere it stays there, making it difficult for heat to escape – and warming up the planet in the process. 

It is primarily released from burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, as well as cement production. 

The average monthly concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, as of April 2019, is 413 parts per million (ppm). Before the Industrial Revolution, the concentration was just 280 ppm. 

CO2 concentration has fluctuated over the last 800,000 years between 180 to 280ppm, but has been vastly accelerated by pollution caused by humans. 

Nitrogen dioxide 

The gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) comes from burning fossil fuels, car exhaust emissions and the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers used in agriculture.

Although there is far less NO2 in the atmosphere than CO2, it is between 200 and 300 times more effective at trapping heat.

Sulfur dioxide 

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) also primarily comes from fossil fuel burning, but can also be released from car exhausts.

SO2 can react with water, oxygen and other chemicals in the atmosphere to cause acid rain. 

Carbon monoxide 

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an indirect greenhouse gas as it reacts with hydroxyl radicals, removing them. Hydroxyl radicals reduce the lifetime of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. 


What is particulate matter?

Particulate matter refers to tiny parts of solids or liquid materials in the air. 

Some are visible, such as dust, whereas others cannot be seen by the naked eye. 

Materials such as metals, microplastics, soil and chemicals can be in particulate matter.

Particulate matter (or PM) is described in micrometres. The two main ones mentioned in reports and studies are PM10 (less than 10 micrometres) and PM2.5 (less than 2.5 micrometres).

Air pollution comes from burning fossil fuels, cars, cement making and agriculture 

Scientists measure the rate of particulates in the air by cubic metre.

Particulate matter is sent into the air by a number of processes including burning fossil fuels, driving cars and steel making.

Why are particulates dangerous?

Particulates are dangerous because those less than 10 micrometres in diameter can get deep into your lungs, or even pass into your bloodstream. Particulates are found in higher concentrations in urban areas, particularly along main roads. 

Health impact

What sort of health problems can pollution cause?

According to the World Health Organization, a third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease can be linked to air pollution. 

Some of the effects of air pollution on the body are not understood, but pollution may increase inflammation which narrows the arteries leading to heart attacks or strokes. 

As well as this, almost one in 10 lung cancer cases in the UK are caused by air pollution. 

Particulates find their way into the lungs and get lodged there, causing inflammation and damage. As well as this, some chemicals in particulates that make their way into the body can cause cancer. 

Deaths from pollution 

Around seven million people die prematurely because of air pollution every year. Pollution can cause a number of issues including asthma attacks, strokes, various cancers and cardiovascular problems. 


Asthma triggers

Air pollution can cause problems for asthma sufferers for a number of reasons. Pollutants in traffic fumes can irritate the airways, and particulates can get into your lungs and throat and make these areas inflamed. 

Problems in pregnancy 

Women exposed to air pollution before getting pregnant are nearly 20 per cent more likely to have babies with birth defects, research suggested in January 2018.

Living within 3.1 miles (5km) of a highly-polluted area one month before conceiving makes women more likely to give birth to babies with defects such as cleft palates or lips, a study by University of Cincinnati found.

For every 0.01mg/m3 increase in fine air particles, birth defects rise by 19 per cent, the research adds. 

Previous research suggests this causes birth defects as a result of women suffering inflammation and ‘internal stress’. 

What is being done to tackle air pollution? 

Paris agreement on climate change

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. 

It hopes to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C (3.6ºF) ‘and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F)’.

Carbon neutral by 2050 

The UK government has announced plans to make the country carbon neutral by 2050. 

They plan to do this by planting more trees and by installing ‘carbon capture’ technology at the source of the pollution.

Some critics are worried that this first option will be used by the government to export its carbon offsetting to other countries.

International carbon credits let nations continue emitting carbon while paying for trees to be planted elsewhere, balancing out their emissions.

No new petrol or diesel vehicles by 2040

In 2017, the UK government announced the sale of new petrol and diesel cars would be banned by 2040. 

From around 2020, town halls will be allowed to levy extra charges on diesel drivers using the UK’s 81 most polluted routes if air quality fails to improve.

However,  MPs on the climate change committee have urged the government to bring the ban forward to 2030, as by then they will have an equivalent range and price.

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. Pictured: air pollution over Paris in 2019.

Norway’s electric car subsidies

The speedy electrification of Norway’s automotive fleet is attributed mainly to generous state subsidies. Electric cars are almost entirely exempt from the heavy taxes imposed on petrol and diesel cars, which makes them competitively priced.

A VW Golf with a standard combustion engine costs nearly 334,000 kroner (34,500 euros, $38,600), while its electric cousin the e-Golf costs 326,000 kroner thanks to a lower tax quotient. 

Criticisms of inaction on climate change

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has said there is a ‘shocking’ lack of Government preparation for the risks to the country from climate change. 

The committee assessed 33 areas where the risks of climate change had to be addressed – from flood resilience of properties to impacts on farmland and supply chains – and found no real progress in any of them.

The UK is not prepared for 2°C of warming, the level at which countries have pledged to curb temperature rises, let alone a 4°C rise, which is possible if greenhouse gases are not cut globally, the committee said.

It added that cities need more green spaces to stop the urban ‘heat island’ effect, and to prevent floods by soaking up heavy rainfall. 

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