Here’s how much pollution has fallen in Italy since quarantine began

Here's how much pollution has fallen in Italy since quarantine began
The empty Viale Alcide de Gasperi, usually one of the busiest roads of Milan, on March 22. Photo: Piero Cruciatti/AFP
Many people in Italian towns and cities now say they're breathing cleaner air after lockdown. But just how much has pollution really dropped - and will this help improve the environment in the long term?

Many of Italy's towns and cities, particuarly in the north, are heavily polluted – and one of the most noticeable side-effects of quarantine for many people around the country has been noticeably cleaner air.

Italy's air quality has improved since the country went into coronavirus quarantine, the European Environment Agency (EEA) confirmed on Wednesday, a trend seen elsewhere in Europe as well.

One of Italy's biggest air pollution blackspots is Milan, Italy's economic capital and the heart of the Lombardy region.

Lombardy is also the area by far worst hit by Italy's coronavirus outbreak, and was the first part of the country to introduce emergency quarantine measures.

Italy enforced national lockdown measures on March 12 in an attempt to control the spread of the virus, which continues to kill hundreds in Italy each day and is now also hitting other parts of Europe hard.

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In Milan, the concentration of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a gas emitted mainly from vehicles and power stations and which can cause inflammation of the respiratory system, has fallen by 24 percent in the last four weeks, compared with the preceeding four weeks, the EEA said.

The week starting on March 16 alone saw a 21 percent reduction compared with the same week one year earlier.

In Rome, NO2 levels have fallen between 26 and 35 percent for the same four weeks, and in Bergamo, Italy's hardest hit city, the reduction was 47 percent.

Photo: AFP

The lockdown in Italy began in certain northern areas on February 23 before it was extended nationwide on March 9. As of 1100 GMT Wednesday, Italy had recorded more 69,000 cases with 6,820 deaths.

EEA said its “data confirm large decreases in air pollutant concentrations… largely due to reduced traffic and other activities, especially in major cities under lockdown measures.”

And the European Space Agency (ESA) released a video of satellite imagery which showed exactly where NO2 emissions have decreased over Italy since quarantine began.

The Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite detected a decline in NO2 emissions signaling the decrease in air pollution, with the most significant change being observed in the north, the ESA said.

“The decline in nitrogen dioxide emissions over the Po Valley in northern Italy is particularly evident,” Claus Zehner, ESA’s Copernicus Sentinel-5P mission manager stated.

“Although there could be slight variations in the data due to cloud cover and changing weather, we are very confident that the reduction in emissions that we can see, coincides with the lockdown in Italy causing less traffic and industrial activities.”

Other parts of Europe have seen similar effects, in Spain for example where NO2 concentration has fallen by 55 percent in Barcelona and 41 percent in Madrid, on a 12-month comparison.

NO2 levels have halved in some other parts of the continent.

But the French air quality monitoring agency cautioned that the lockdown had not led to marked declines in so-called PM2.5 and PM10 particles, the smallest and most harmful air pollutants – they said this was due to increased use of home heating and continued agricultural activity.

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And the EEA insisted that the reductions in emissions do not solve the issue of climate change, and nor are they particularly helpful to its mission long-term.

“The current crisis and its multiple impacts on our society work against what we are trying to achieve, which is a just and well-managed transition towards a resilient and sustainable society,” the agency's director Hans Bruyninckx said in the statement.

In an comment to AFP last week the director said that “making Europe climate neutral requires continuous emission reductions over a long period.”


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