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Story | Research
11 May 2020

Can our pandemic habits leave a “dent” on climate change?

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Photograph: Hung Chung Chih/Shutterstock

Scientist from QF research institute speaks about air quality in post-COVID-19 world

What we are seeing now is a glimpse of how things can be. From China to India to the United States, people have been sharing pictures of clear blue skies on social media. “I don’t know the authenticity of these images, but that’s the kind of potential we are looking at. And my sincere hope is that people like what they see with respect to air quality, and that they insist that this becomes the new norm,” said Mohammed Ayoub, Senior Research Director, Environment and Sustainability Centre, Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute.

If we look at adopting these measures in revising how we do business or have greater reliance in terms of remote working or remote communication strategies to decrease our movement, we can look to decrease our emissions

Mohammed Ayoub

Ayoub was speaking at a webinar hosted by the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute (QEERI) on the topic of Demystifying the Links Between COVID-19 Response and Local Air Quality.

“Are the reductions associated with social distancing restrictions for a period of a month or two, or even a year, going to have a dent in terms of climate change? Likely not in the short term. But if we look at adopting these measures in revising how we do business or have greater reliance in terms of remote working or remote communication strategies to decrease our movement, we can look to decrease our emissions,” Ayoub said.

QEERI, part of Hamad Bin Khalifa University – a homegrown university of the Qatar Foundation – had recently announced that it had observed a 30 percent decrease in PM2.5 concentrations across greater Doha, which can be directly attributed to social distancing policies. Particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5) refers to tiny particles or droplets in the air that are two and one half microns or less in width, and is a concern for people's health when its levels in the air are high. QEERI also noted decreases of 9 percent and 19.7 percent respectively, in ozone and nitrogen dioxide concentrations – both of which are also harmful to humans.

Air pollution does in fact reduce the body’s immunity and ability to fight the virus. Those of us living in cleaner environments are at a higher advantage than others

Mohammed Ayoub

“You have a 15 percent higher likelihood of death if you live in a polluted county in the US and get infected with COVID-19 than some of the cleaner counties,” Ayoub said citing a recently published study by Harvard University. “Air pollution does in fact reduce the body’s immunity and ability to fight the virus. Those of us living in cleaner environments are at a higher advantage than others. And new studies have found traces of the virus in particulate matter in areas that have high infection rates.”
Pertaining specifically to COVID-19, improving air quality during the pandemic alone will not eliminate this risk. The only way to achieve that is to reduce the population’s long-term exposure by reducing air pollutant concentrations in the long term.

Studies suggest that outdoor air pollution kills around 4.2 million people worldwide each year. But with the pandemic, global carbon dioxide emissions are plummeting to levels last seen 10 years ago, according to a recently published report by the International Energy Agency (IEA). It stated that the world’s carbon dioxide emission is set to plunge 8 percent this year – a drop this steep would be the largest ever recorded in terms of tons of CO2, about six times greater than the impact of the 2008-2009 financial crisis.

Photograph: goodluz/Shutterstock

And if people worked out of the office for only half of the work week, there could be a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 54 million tons every year, according to Global Workforce Analytics estimates.

Ayoub hopes that people can start looking at some of the gains in climate change that we as a global community need to prioritize. “It is my sincere hope that the answer is in the affirmative, but that only happens with engagement – at a public-level, research-level and with policy and decision-making engagement. So, keep the discussions going, and keep the insistence.”

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