Staying sustainable – air pollution decreased as the world went into lockdown. Can we keep this trend going now that the world is opening up?

8 July, 2020

If you can talk about benefits of a virus that has infected more than 11.5 million people across the world then a better insight into our planet has been one of them. A significant reduction in travel due to the mobility restrictions introduced across many countries has seen pollution levels dramatically decrease.

Before the pandemic the topic that everyone was talking about was sustainability and how the travel industry can and must play its part in helping to slow climate change and readdress the balance. Airlines, airports, aircraft manufacturers and hotels all had the issue front and centre of their agenda with a number of different initiatives taking place.

Along comes Covid-19 and the subject changes overnight to one of survival. As the world quickly shuts down, industrial activity ceases, flights are grounded, populations urged to stay indoors, greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution levels around the world dramatically decreased. In India, where air pollution is among the world's worst, "people are reporting seeing the Himalayas for the first time from where they live," reports Laura Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

The enforced closures of all the polluting factors has given our planet a chance to breathe easier and slowly recover. The graphic satellite pictures of cities before and after lockdown illustrate how quickly the planet responds when given a chance. The enforced cessation of normal activities has given us all an opportunity to take stock of the situation and think carefully about whether we want to go back to the old polluting ways or not just think sustainability but change our ways too.

CHART - Global air travel is on its recovery path, but capacity levels remain less than half the levels seen this time last yearSource: The Blue Swan Daily and OAG

Airlines and airports want us to get back to our previous levels of travel quickly and quite understandably. Destinations too. But should we take this opportunity to rethink the way we travel and consider more sustainable ways of travelling? Do we want to return to where we were previously and where overtourism was becoming a significant concern for a number of environments.

Sustainability concerns are not just about greenhouse gases but about the way it affects local communities. Cruise ships arriving at small island nations overwhelming the population for little benefit; cheap flights meaning short trips to historic cities that are unable to cope; the mountain of plastic that ends up in our oceans… there are many downsides to the current travel patterns.

According to Paul Monks, Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Earth Observation Science at the University of Leicester: "Two weeks after the nationwide lockdown was announced on 23-Mar-2020 in the UK, NO₂ pollution in some cities fell by as much as 60% compared to the same period in 2019. NASA revealed that NO₂ pollution over New York and other major metropolitan areas in north-eastern USA was 30% lower in Mar-2020, compared to the monthly average from 2015 to 2019."

Professor Monks continued: "In a sense, we are conducting the largest ever global air pollution experiment. Over a relatively short period of time, we're turning off major air pollutant sources in industry and transport."

Air pollution is measured in the amount of particles in the atmosphere with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less, known as PM2.5. Measuring cities before and after lockdown is illuminating.

A study undertaken by Dealchecker has looked at the pollution levels of various cities around the world with some dramatic results. Average readings across the board in Apr-2019 sat at 72.8 compared to 57.2 in Apr-2020. In fact, 83% of the cities analysed have actually shown an improvement in air quality since governments introduced lockdowns.

As a result, the platform is now urging people to keep the environment in mind when booking their next holiday and has provided a useful interactive map which analyses over 100 cities worldwide to provide an overview of the places that have improved their air quality.

Its insight highlights Canberra in Australia as the city with the biggest decreases in PM2.5 between Apr-2019 and Apr-2020, a notable -83.1% change. Other cities that are significantly 'greener' are Kabul, Afghanistan (-68.9%), Stockholm, Sweden (-62.7%), Tbilisi, Georgia (-48.1%) and Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan (-46.7%).

There are various additional influences on travel today: fear and travel health are among those that have become the more obvious. However, the environment remains a major factor and sustainability goals correctly remain integrated into business philosophy.

Some of the ways in which Dealchecker suggests we consider changes to our previous travel habits are:

  • Offset our carbon footprint - there are lots of companies offering travellers the chance to pay to offset the CO2 emissions caused by our journey. Yes, the emissions will still be released into the atmosphere but the money goes to investing in schemes to reduce carbon dioxide elsewhere.
  • Consider train travel - train travel takes a little (or a lot) longer but it only produces around 50% of the emissions of a plane journey to the same place. That's a lot less, and we might get to take in some dreamy views along the way.
  • Stay in an eco-accredited hotel - Green Globe and Green Key are just two of the accreditations that hotels can earn for leading the way when it comes to sustainability and environment protection. Staying in one of these hotels can make our stay just that much more relaxing as we will know our break is environmentally sound.
  • Use our feet - this sounds simple but lots of simple changes can change the world. When we're away, avoid taxis, buses and trains where possible and instead walk. That way we know no excess emissions are being created and we get to explore the neighbourhood we're staying in a lot more too.

The World Health Organization estimates that around 4.6 million people die from air pollution each year. We can see for ourselves how much better the air is in our cities from the cessation of the polluting industries. So now is the time for us all to take action and consider whether we want to go back to our old ways or press the reset button and keep the environment in mind before we book.