Sicker World, Cleaner Air? The effects of COVID-19 on Global Air Pollution

Kelly McGarry, Staff Writer

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, major cities and countries have been combatting the spread of the virus by temporarily closing down their borders and businesses and enforcing mandatory stay -at-home orders.

These orders came with both support and criticism. On April 19th, Washingtonians rallied at the state capitol in Olympia, calling for the stay-at-home order to come to an end. More recently on April 30th, frustrated Michigan residents protested Governor Whitmer’s stay-at-home order.  Some of these individuals were armed.

While many have begun to express their dissatisfaction with these mandatory restrictions, it comes with its benefits. Lots of wildlife activity has been reported, and people have noticed cleaner air. Air pollution has decreased in many areas of the world, including northern Italy, China, and India. According to a research done by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air in Helsinki, Finland, levels of PM2.5 and nitrogen dioxide fell over 70 percent after stay-at-home orders were strongly enforced.

Seattle Prep Theology teacher, Paul Peterhans, said that the three major greenhouse gasses on Earth are “carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrogen gas.”

Peterhans referred to carbon dioxide as the currency of climate change: “one ton of methane emitted to the atmosphere is equivalent to 34 tons of CO2 emissions. One Ton of N2O is equivalent to 298 tons of CO2. NO2 is also an atmospheric ozone destroyer.”

“What we haven’t begun to look at is that there is a dramatic connection between COVID-19 and climate change. The more we create an unstable climate, you also increase allergies, viruses, illnesses. Additionally, with the decrease in human and economic activity, the Planet has been able to flourish and begin the process of restoration and balance. Everything is interconnected”, commented Peterhans.

As various areas of the globe have slowed down and enforced self-quarantining, cities once with high levels of air pollution are seeing plummeting rates of such air pollutants. In March, NASA published satellite images of China revealing that there were ‘significant decreases’ in N20 concentrations. These levels were about 10-30% lower than on previous years and they have sustained these lower levels long after Lunar New Years.

When asked if the quarantine has given people a willingness to combat such environmental issues, Peterhans was not so sure: “Will we change our lifestyle? That is my hope, but I don’t know if I am completely optimistic about that.  There is an indigenous saying: when you make decisions, think about seven generations down the road (500 years in indigenous terms.) As a species we struggle with seeing things in the long term and then making changes in the short term. We are good at responding to immediate threats, but from an evolutionary/neurological context, we simply go back to ordinary activity as if it never happened. So, we will see if we respond to this latest wake-up call to transform our consciousness and behaviors arising out of that.”

Peterhans believes that once stay-at-home orders are lifted, these air pollution rates will likely go back to their original numbers. This is unless countries begin to make dramatic changes as “(they) need to recognize what we need to do technologically. Whether it’s electric cars, biodiesel fuel for planes, or just mass transit. Those things have to be designed, planned, and implemented.”



When asked if there is anything Prep students can do to create a sustainable environment, Peterhans commented that Prep students could ask “for more times in the school schedule to bring these issues into focus. If we could address climate change in the same way we addressed the COVID-19 pandemic, we would live a more humane life and would have everything we need, not necessarily everything we want.”