Living life inside has become a reality for most, but there are several environmental benefits that have resulted from the lockdown.
For Londoners, life has changed drastically, in a way which we could never have predicted. Far fewer people are commuting to work and you’d be hard pushed to find a traffic jam today in the capital. Meanwhile, production has ground to a halt for some industries, and there are far fewer people out on the streets – all of which is having a huge impact on our environment. Though the cost of the coronavirus outbreak is both high and terrible, there’s one upside in the fact that our natural world is showing hesitant signs of rejuvenation during the lockdown. In honour of Earth Day 2020, we’ve gathered up some of the positive news stories about the environmental benefits that have resulted from a massive drop in human activity.
1. Air pollution levels in the capital have fallen
To best understand what has happened as a result of lockdown, it’s probably best to start with 2019. Last year, air pollution in London (caused in part by traffic and industrial production) was at illegal levels in some areas. A study from Kings College London predicted that it would take six years to reduce air pollution to legal levels, even within the context of measures taken by Sadiq Khan to reduce air pollution. In 2016 the future looked even bleaker, with KCL predicting a 193 year wait until legal levels were reached. This same study revealed the impact that air pollution has on our health, with The Financial Times reporting that in London alone, “air pollution contributes to more than 9,000 premature deaths each year.” Worrying reading, indeed.
It goes without saying that the situation in the UK has changed drastically in 2020. The lockdown that we are currently living under is an unprecedented and drastic measure, necessitated by incredibly sad and stressful circumstances. However, the lockdown has created a unique situation for experts to study, as the streets are empty and studies point to a reduction in air pollution.
Yes it’s Marylebone Road #AirPollution like you’ve never seen before. The change of weather is a factor too. Our automated data validation systems at @LondonAir have been alerting us for possible equipment faults since the data is so low and flat at the weekend. Odd times. https://t.co/vFytnjrAiM
— Gary Fuller (@DrGaryFuller) March 30, 2020
While the air in London is still dangerously polluted, the lockdown could be providing beneficial for the environment and for our respiratory health. Spring is a time which usually sees increased air pollution – for instance, it’s when the agricultural industry uses a lot of manure, which contains ammonia – but there’s another reason why any reduction in air pollution could be crucial. COVID-19 is a virus that causes respiratory issues, meaning that people with conditions like asthma are more likely to experience severe symptoms. Air quality has a drastic impact on the severity of respiratory conditions, and so an improvement in air quality can only be good news for those who have been categorised as ‘high risk’ by the government.
Only time will tell whether or not we see a trend toward cleaner air in London but residents are already rejoicing at the sight of less smog.
2. Toxic fumes fall to their lowest level since the 1950s
Air pollution levels may be falling, but just as key is the reduction in toxic fumes, which are now reaching levels not seen for almost 70 years. Scientists from York University have been crunching the data from thirteen pollution-monitoring sites across London, and noted what the Evening Standard are calling “unprecedented declines” in gases like nitrogen oxides and nitrogen dioxide. As road travel has fallen by 70%+ since the UK lockdown began, these vehicle emissions have seen a steep decrease – resulting in cleaner air for the rest of us.
3. Wildlife is returning to our streets
While the goats in Llandudno are getting all the publicity, how about a shout out for these deer who have colonised the empty streets of Harold Hill in east London? pic.twitter.com/sOZs4Tqf25
— Billy Bragg (@billybragg) April 1, 2020
Yes, those “nature is healing” memes aren’t just funny, they’re (occasionally) accurate too. And when we say wildlife is returning to our streets, we do mean literally. Just look at the mountain goats who stormed the Welsh town of Llandudno, reclaiming their domain as the townspeople sheltered indoors. It’s not just Wales that’s seen this sort of resurgence, either; Harold Hill out in east London has welcomed some new residents, with a herd of deer colonising the empty streets. Out in the wider world, lions have been taking naps on roads in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, and coyotes are enjoying the spectre of a deserted San Francisco, in further evidence that decreasing human activity has a marked impact on the natural world.
4. Air traffic in the UK has fallen by around 90%
Now I’m in no rush to wildly celebrate this one, being amongst the many who have seen long-awaited holidays cancelled or postponed because of the coronavirus outbreak. But as any self-respecting environmentalist will tell you, the global aviation industry is one of the biggest contributors to carbon emissions – along with plenty of other polluting particulates that emerge from the burning of jet fuel. The costs and benefits of air travel have been debated at length elsewhere, but what’s become clear of late is that the number of plane journeys into and out of the UK have been plummeting recently.
In 2019, Good Friday was the busiest day for flights over the Easter period. This is how it compared to Good Friday this year, when traffic is down 91% pic.twitter.com/UsnsBWVsOP
— NATS (@NATS) April 14, 2020
The National Air Traffic Service witnessed an 89% decrease in UK flights on April 2, 2020, when compared with data from April 2, 2020, and recent data from Good Friday (one of Spring’s busiest flight dates) puts that figure at 91%. This a trend that’s mirrored across the world, with The Guardian quoting that “nearly eight in 10 flights globally have been cancelled” – and some carriers, such as EasyJet, grounded all their services in late March. It’s bad news for holidaymakers and the tourist industry, as the UK Foreign Office warns against all non-essential travel “indefinitely”, but the environmental benefits are undeniable, with a likely fall in global carbon emissions the result.
5. Wildflowers are expected to bloom in record numbers this summer
The lucky ones amongst us may have used the combination of enforced confinement and sunny weather to indulge in a little gardening, but out in public spaces, the gardening has come to a halt. That’s likely to provide an unforeseen upside, according to wildflower conservation charity Plantlife, who reckon that since councils are unable to mow roadside verges and grassy places, wildflowers will take the opportunity to bloom in greater numbers than before. Per Plantlife, “once-familiar flowers, such as white campion, betony, greater knapweed and harebell”, along with more regular sights such as bluebells and purple orchids, will have the chance to grow alongside roads without being mown down in their prime. Aside from the obvious fact that this’ll prettify the B-roads of the UK, it also provides a boon to fauna within the ecosystem, with bees, birds, and bats expected to reap the benefits of more plants pollinating for longer. Flower power, indeed!