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Falling air pollution due to lockdown effect saves 11,000 lives

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Air pollution levels across Europe have dropped considerably since the introduction of lockdowns to prevent the spread of coronavirus, resulting in 11,000 avoided deaths according to the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA).

In its study, CREA found an approximate 40 per cent reduction in the average level of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution and a 10 per cent reduction in the average level of particulate matter pollution over the past 30 days.

This effect comes as power generation from coal has fallen by 37 per cent and oil consumption dropped by around a third. Coal and oil burning are the main sources of NO2 pollution and key sources of particulate matter pollution across Europe.

“You could compare it to everyone in Europe stopping smoking for a month,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at CREA. “Our analysis highlights the tremendous benefits for public health and quality of life that could be achieved by rapidly reducing fossil fuels in a sustained and sustainable way.”

Other avoided health impacts include 1.3 million fewer days of work absence; 6,000 fewer new cases of asthma in children; 1,900 avoided emergency room visits due to asthma attacks, and 600 fewer pre-term births.

Most of these health impacts are linked to chronic air pollution exposure and will be realised over the coming months and years.

The health impact analysis also highlights how, regardless of improved air quality, air pollution is contributing to the load on the healthcare system at the time of the coronavirus epidemic. Due to the effects of air pollution, there are already people suffering from pre-existing conditions that make them more vulnerable to Covid-19 and more people requiring treatment for everything from asthma to stroke and diabetes at a time when the system is overburdened.

The reduced activity resulting from the lockdown has also caused a two-fifths drop in emissions from the power sector across Europe, according to the climate think tank Ember.

Electricity demand is down 14 per cent across the 27 EU member states and the UK over the past 30 days compared to the same period in 2019, figures show.

Coal has taken the brunt of the fall, with generation from lignite, or brown coal, and hard coal both down more than 40 per cent over the past month compared to the same period last year.

The UK has had a record-breaking coal-free run since lockdown, with over 19 days already recorded without electricity generated by the fossil fuel. Portugal has enjoyed over a month with no coal-generated power. 

Across the EU27 and the UK, coal averaged 11 per cent of the electricity mix in the past month - a record low for the fuel. Gas generation was also down 30 per cent compared to the same period last year. 

As a result, carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector are 39 per cent lower over the past 30 days than in this period in 2019, the analysis suggests.

Meanwhile, renewables have seen a boost, with power generation from solar up 28 per cent on the same period last year, due to sunny weather and new installations of panels.

Overall, wind and solar have accounted for almost a quarter (23 per cent) of European electricity production in the last 30 days, compared with 18 per cent during 2019 as a whole.

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