One positive but unplanned outcome from Covid-19 was the brief glimpse it provided into a future scenario where gases and particles from the combustion of fossil fuels are significantly reduced. Two British universities (Warwick and York), in collaboration with the EU Environmental Authority, conducted a major study into the health impacts of automotive emissions. The reduced transportation activity associated with Covid-19 lockdowns interrupted the pattern of year-by-year pollution data. The images of empty highways and cities around the world appeared on TV news screens and the absence of traffic gave us a direct measure of automotive exhaust pollution.
What are the gases that are emitted by internal combustion of fossil fuels? The two most dangerous are carbon particulates and nitrogen oxides. The carbon particulates are described by leading health authorities – including the US National Library of Medicine – as potentially carcinogenic. They are produced mainly by combustion of diesel fuel. Diesel emissions are the cause of 75 per cent of the health harm from traffic, according to the EU Public Health Alliance. Meanwhile, nitrogen oxides formed from automotive and industrial combustion are damaging to the respiratory system, the eyes and the skin. At high levels, they can be lethal. The annual health impact from air pollution in the UK is monitored by Public Health UK. The number of deaths from air pollution has been estimated at about 30,000 per annum from a variety of conditions, including heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, lung cancer and asthma.
A third gas exhibiting reduced levels during the Covid-19 pandemic was the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (CO2). Elevated levels of CO2 are a key climate change predictor of atmospheric warming, catastrophic droughts, exceptional storms, floods and sea-level change.
The advent of electric cars (next 10 years) and planes (next 20 years), together with the global withdrawal (excluding China and India) from utilising coal as an energy source, will all help reduce these major climate and health impacts. Recent decisions by 14 countries and 20 cities to phase out fossil fuels by 2030 or 2040 will be a major step in the direction of improved human health and reduced climate change impacts. New Zealand is a world leader, with 85 per cent of its energy being renewable. This is a strong platform for future climate action. There are critical roles for governments, companies, cities and individuals in achieving this more sustainable, cleaner and healthier planet for our children and grandchildren.
The message is clear: a pandemic has given the global community a brief glimpse of a future where we have controlled the levels of greenhouse and toxic gases and cancer-inducing carbon particles. If urgent human response to a pandemic could achieve these positive atmospheric adjustments in the space of only a few months, surely, with sustained commitment over years, we can stop or delay the climate change catastrophes that are anticipated during the coming decades.
Emeritus Professor Ralph Cooney