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COVID-19 must inspire us to clean up the air we breathe

Poor air quality can make us more vulnerable to pandemics. That is why taking on air pollution today will help us make the post-corona world of tomorrow healthier, safer and more resilient, writes Roberta Arbinolo.

As researchers across the world investigate the link between air pollution and the spread of Covid-19, a growing body of evidence suggested that people living in polluted cities are more at risk from the coronavirus.

Long-term exposure to toxic air compromises our health and make us more vulnerable. Breathing polluted air can cause serious medical conditions including respiratory diseases, heart disease, and cancer, thus impairing our capacity to fight off lung infections.

Now more than ever, lowering air pollution levels is key to making us more resilient, and will help the most vulnerable to fight this and future challenges. This is why scientists and campaigners are calling on governments and public authorities to enforce existing air quality regulations with no further delay and to make clean air part of their vision for the world after COVID-19.

“It’s important that we plan for a future beyond this crisis. We cannot afford to go back to business as usual, our governments must cut harmful air pollution at source,” said EEB air quality expert Margherita Tolotto.

We cannot go back to a dirty future

Interestingly, as traffic decreased in our cities due to the movement restrictions and lockdowns implemented to contain the spread of the pandemic, citizens across Europe started breathing fresher air. The satellite imagery revealing the remarkable drop in NO2 pollution in Northern Italy during the coronavirus outbreak grabbed headlines around the world. The same trend was observed with particulate matter, one of the most dangerous forms of air pollution. This rapid if temporary drop illustrated how quickly the quality of the air we breathe can improve if pollution sources are addressed.

At the same time, satellite images of the air pollution rebound in China after the country resumed economic activities showed how quickly we can bounce back to a dirty future if toxic emissions are not cut at source.

As our governments and local administrations prepare their recovery plans for the post-coronavirus crisis phase, Tolotto called this a wake-up call: “We shouldn’t have had to wait for a dangerous pandemic to experience cleaner air. Any recovery programme must deliver on the European Green Deal and the zero-pollution objective, and help build a more resilient future, where clean air is guaranteed for everyone, everywhere.”

“The pandemic has not in any way reduced the urgency of tackling the multiple environmental crises that we were already facing – if anything, it has shown that we need to step up the pace and put the green transition at the heart of the recovery process. It has shown that we can and must do things differently,” emphasised the EEB’s Secretary General Jeremy Wates.

As Germany took the helm of the EU and kicked off a new trio of rotating presidencies on 1 July 2020, the EEB released a blueprint to guide the necessary transition towards a greener Europe. This included recommendations to guarantee cleaner air and a non-toxic environment.

The economy and ecology of clean air

Effective measures to improve air quality are already available and bring clear financial advantages. Air pollution is the biggest environmental health risk in Europe, with health-related economic costs estimated at €330-940 billion every year. This is from one to three times the GDP of a country like Denmark.

Besides affecting people’s health, toxic air threatens ecosystems and damages crops. This is why addressing air pollution at source will bring important gains for society as a whole.

Action is required at all levels, including as part of the EU’s Green Deal. Authorities will need to choose clean power over dirty energy sources, swiftly phasing out the most polluting source, coal, and to prevent energy waste.

Good farming practices must be supported to produce quality food while protecting people and nature, and food waste must be reduced. We need to invest in greener and smarter mobility, to cut emissions, while ensuring that our cities are built for people and around people, instead of cars. It is about rethinking the way we experience our cities, organise our work, produce and distribute our food, and the way we engage with our communities.

From Brussels to Paris, Milan and Budapest, local authorities have already started adapting their urban planning and infrastructures to make more room for people and ‘active transport’. Besides allowing physical distancing during lockdown, these measures are helping make our cities safer and cleaner, and must be upscaled.

Ultimately, putting air quality at the core of our vision for the world after COVID-19 will bring us a step closer to a better future where people and nature thrive together.

The EEB is part of the Project Clean Air Farming (LIFE17 GIE/DE/610 Air & Agriculture), which is co-financed by the LIFE programme of the European Commission.

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