The lockdown is confirming just how damaging air pollution has been, we must demand a Green New Deal to make sure we don't go back, argues Jamal Elaheebocus
In many ways the lockdown has been a hugely negative experience for many, with the government offering no support for so many vulnerable people. However, one positive that is noticeable, particularly in London, is the cleaner air, clearer skies and quieter streets. While this has its own benefits in terms of improving mental wellbeing, it is also a life-saver.
A study released last Thursday by the Centre of Research on Energy and Clean Air showed that, in Europe alone, 11,000 deaths have been prevented as a result of the cleaner air while countries have been in lockdown. In the UK, it is predicted that 1,752 deaths have been avoided. This is because the level of pollutants has reduced significantly, for example nitrogen dioxide (down 40%) and PM2.5 (down 10%). However, a more pertinent point is that 1,752 people would have died in the UK during April due to air pollution had we not been in lockdown.
We also know that exposure to high levels of air pollution increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and chronic respiratory disease and people with these conditions are more likely to develop more severe symptoms of or die of COVID-19. As a result of this, thousands of people may have died from coronavirus because of their exposure to air pollution.
An article published in the Science of the Total Environment has suggested that areas with higher pollution levels have had higher numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths. The study looked at 66 administrative regions across France, Germany, Italy and Spain and found that 78% of deaths came from the five regions which had the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide emissions and the worst airflow conditions.
While all these studies are new and the study in the Centre of Research on Energy and Clean Air is yet to be peer-reviewed, they are compatible with a lot of the research into air pollution and respiratory diseases which has been carried out previously.
The message from this is clear: We desperately need to move to clean transport, energy and all forms of production now. The capitalist system is directly responsible for the environmental destruction that has happened over the last 30 years or so, through its pursuit of short-term profit without a view to the damage its methods of production cause to people and the environment. The richest 10% are responsible for 50% of global emissions. We know that this system is unsustainable and the damage it is causing to the environment and countless human lives is irreparable.
The deaths from coronavirus due to air pollution are just a fraction of the deaths that will be caused due to the climate catastrophe which will inevitably come. And as with any crisis, we know that the poorest and most vulnerable in society will be hit hardest. In the UK, those living in housing estates in densely populated urban areas are far more likely to be exposed to high levels of pollution than those in rural areas. Globally, those in the Global South will feel and are feeling the consequences of the failure of richer countries to reduce their air pollution levels, through the destruction of their homes and sources of income as a result of extreme weather and increasing global temperature.
The recent YouGov poll showed that only 9% of Britons wanted to return to normal life. This is yet another element of life before coronavirus which we must not return to. A Green New Deal is the only way forward to prevent millions of more deaths and ruined lives.
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