The Covid-19 pandemic has cleared the city streets. But who foresaw that it would dramatically clean the urban air?
One unexpected consequence of the global response to the coronavirus pandemic has been the extraordinary reduction in urban air pollution in cities where the majority of the population have been required to stay home. This level of clean city air—clean enough to breathe freely without fear of eventually damaging one’s health and that of one’s children, is unprecedented in the modern era. Urban residents have marveled at the clarity of distant mountains rarely seen or imagined. Cities that used to be shrouded in a grey-brown blanket of smog, now seem newly minted against a background of sparkling blue sky.
Urban air pollution in major cities has been a scandal for centuries. The air pollution in London, England, has been atrocious since the 17th Century when the poet Sir William Davenport complained about the ‘canopy of smoke’ that covered the city. We might have imagined that London’s air quality had improved over the last three centuries as the burning of coal in the city has been replaced by cleaner fuels, but we would be wrong. A report released in 2017 found that all Londoners are exposed to concentrations of particulate matter higher than WHO air quality guidelines. In central London, about 8 million people breathe in air that exceeds the guidelines by a whopping 50 percent or more.
The last ICE age
Coal is no longer the primary culprit. It is now the unbridled use of the internal combustion engine (ICE) for urban transport and the combustion of huge quantities of hydrocarbon fuels such as gasoline and diesel in the urban environment.
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