Clean air is possible without lockdowns, new study shows

March 30, 2021

In the throes of an ever worsening pandemic, the residents of Milan, forced into lockdown in March 2020, found solace from an unlikely occurrence. Where pollution had once hindered the view of the Alps, residents could now clearly see their snow-capped peaks. It was a similar story across the continent. A T&E survey at the time showed that residents throughout Europe wanted these reductions in air pollution to remain. A new T&E study shows that it is possible - except this time without the need for lockdowns.

The report outlines the changes in urban mobility needed for a rapid but realistic return and lock-in of the record low air pollution levels of March and April 2020. The analysis looked at the two most common strategies to clean up urban mobility: a roll-out of zero-emission vehicles whose sales surged across Europe in 2020, and a wider overhaul of mobility leading to a switch to active travel, public transport and teleworking.

In all the cities analysed, the fastest way to lockdown-levels of pollution is by combining active travel and public transport with zero-emission vehicles. In Budapest, Brussels, Berlin and London, a switch to zero-emission vehicles could also achieve similar reductions; between 42% (Budapest) and 92% (London) of all kilometers driven by car need to go zero-emissions to replicate nitrogen oxide (NO2) levels observed during the strictest lockdown phase. These four cities would reach lockdown-levels of clean air quicker, however, if they combine this with a modal shift and through teleworking, the study shows. This also brings other benefits not observed in the study, added T&E. Less cars would mean more public space, less accidents and less noise pollution.

In Madrid and Paris, which have seen particularly strong reductions of NO2 pollution, only a combination of zero-emission vehicles and reduced car use can replicate lockdown levels. In the Spanish capital, 10% of all kilometers travelled by light and heavy-goods vehicles, as well as 94% of car kilometres, would have to go zero-emissions. In the ‘city of light’, 67% of all kilometers driven by cars, vans and trucks need to do so.

Jens Müller, air quality coordinator at T&E, said: “We are now at a make-or-break moment. We’re currently seeing the return of car traffic and rebounding pollution. However, we are also seeing increasing sales of zero-emission vehicles, combined with more teleworking and active travel. The alternatives are there and people want to use them. Can we support the necessary shift to clean mobility?”

Müller says that cities and governments should focus on phasing out vehicles with internal combustion engines at the national and local level, through measures like zero-emissions zones, reforming taxation to accelerate the uptake of emissions-free vehicles, and reallocating public space to walking, cycling and public transport. The EU could make the strongest contribution, he says, by setting an EU-wide phase-out date for sales of cars with internal combustion engines no later than 2035 and tightening the CO2 standards for cars, vans, trucks and buses that are sold after 2025.

This comes at a time when a growing number of health experts are warning that air pollution itself may make us more vulnerable to the coronavirus. Professor Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva said “the role of elevated airborne particulate matter concentrations may be one of the major determinants of both the transmission and severity of Covid-19”. There are a number of research projects underway to understand the possible links.

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