During the first lockdown in Italy, quite a few journalists praised the power of mother nature in reclaiming what they thought was a forever-changed environment: without all the cars and the traffic, people could breathe cleaner air, animals started repopulating their long lost habitats, and birds’ songs could be heard once more. This general approach was followed by others all around the world, as everybody expected that air quality would improve substantially.

Today we know that these were just momentarily changes, destined not to last long.

Recent studies

Disha Shetty informs us that a new study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances, has found out that while Covid-19 lockdowns did improve air quality, the gains were smaller than expected and fluctuated from city to city. 

The researchers from the University of Birmingham in the UK evaluated air quality across 11 global cities to arrive at the conclusion that the lockdowns in fact caused concentrations of ozone to rise. The impact of lockdowns on air pollutants level are therefore more complex and smaller than expected.

Robert Preidt points out the study co-author Roy Harrison’s point of view, who noted that, if similar restrictions had remained in place, annual average nitrogen dioxide levels in most locations studied would have complied with World Health Organization air quality guidelines.

Therefore, for air quality to meet set global standards, these reductions will have to be more long-term: there is an urgent need for a systemic change. The mitigation measures in the future would both have to be systemic and tailored for specific cities to maximize the benefits, according to the researchers.

The Covid-19 lockdowns did curtail some pollution-causing activities like commuting or electricity use in commercial establishments, while others like biomass-based cooking or air-conditioning in homes continued. As this Gary Fuller reminds us, in fact we often neglect the role of agriculture and home heating in causing particle pollution.

Shetty also reports these important words from Ulka Kelkar, the director of climate program at WRI India, not involved with the Birmingham study: “Unless we transform the underlying structural causes of carbon dioxide emissions or particulate matter pollution, temporary cessation of selected activities or favourable weather patterns will not be sufficient to make our skies cleaner and our children healthier. […] This will be possible only if we significantly accelerate the adoption of clean energy and energy efficiency throughout the economy”.

The hard lesson

Therefore, what should we treasure from this extremely tough experience of lockdown?

As Jonathan Watts points out, this slowdown of human activity was too short to reverse decades of destruction, but it did provide a glimpse of what the world might feel like without fossil fuels and with more space for nature.

Wildlife did not have time to reclaim lost territory but it had scope for exploration. Alongside apocalyptic images of deserted roads, the internet briefly buzzed with heartwarming clips of sheep in a deserted playground in Monmouthshire, Wales, coyotes on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, wild boar snuffling through the streets of Barcelona, and deer grazing not far from the White House in Washington DC. Wildflowers flourished on roadsides because verges were cut less frequently.

In the global south, the picture was more mixed. Rhino poaching declined in Tanzania due to disruption of supply chains and restrictions on cross-border movements, but bushmeat hunting, illegal firewood collection and incursions into protected areas increased in India, Nepal and Kenya because local communities lost tourist income and sought other ways to care for their families.

In Brazil, traditional guardians of the Amazon have been weakened. The Xavante and Yanomami indigenous groups have been strongly impacted by the disease, and the lockdown has kept forest rangers at home. Meanwhile, land grabbers, fire-starters and illegal miners were busier than ever. Deforestation in Brazil hit a 12-year high.

Elsewhere, there were health gains, though probably not enough to offset the losses. However, the change was visible from space, where satellites picked up clear reductions of smog belts over Wuhan in China and Turin in Italy. Residents in many cities could also see the difference with their own eyes. In Kathmandu, Nepal, residents were astonished to make out Mount Everest for the first time in decades. In Manila, the Sierra Madre became visible again.


As we saw, the gains were short-lived, but we know now more than ever what beautiful world we are losing, and what breathing clean air means for everyone. Let’s keep ourselves and our governments on track on the road to adopt green, clean energy sources throughout all aspects of our life, from house heating to the whole economy: after all, #webreathethesameair.


Read the full articles here:

  1. Disha Shetty, Covid-19 Lockdowns Improved Air Quality But Far Less Than Expected, January 2021  (https://www.forbes.com/sites/dishashetty/2021/01/14/covid-19-lockdowns-improved-air-quality-but-far-less-than-expected/?sh=1b06c49841a7)
  2. Jonathan Watts, Could Covid lockdown have helped save the planet?, December 2020 (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/29/could-covid-lockdown-have-helped-save-the-planet)
  3. Robert Preidt, January 2021, Covid Lockdowns’ Boost to Air Quality Limited (https://www.webmd.com/lung/news/20210113/lockdowns-benefits-for-air-quality-werent-as-big-as-thought-study)
  4. Gary Fuller, Pollutionwatch: major sources of air pollution often overlooked, January 2021 (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jan/15/pollutionwatch-major-sources-of-air-pollution-often-overlooked)
  5. Zongbo Shi, Congbo Song, Gongda Lu, Jingsha Xu, Tuan Van Vu, Robert J. R. Elliot, Abrupt but smaller than expected changes in surface air quality attributable to COVID-19 lockdowns, January 2021 (https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/7/3/eabd6696.full)


Interested in finding out the link about air pollution and Covid-19? Read our article here.