Air pollution across Europe remains down 45 per cent as strict quarantine measures force people to stay at home, new satellite images show

  • Nitrogen dioxide levels across Europe have dropped across lockdown cities
  • Paris saw a drop in NO2 levels of 54 per cent with Rome down by 49 per cent 
  • Data from the ESA Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite revealed a dramatic change 

Satellite images show a dramatic improvement in air quality over Europe as people stay at home due to strict quarantine measures.

New data from the European Space Agency Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite show some cities seeing a 45 per cent drop in nitrogen dioxide levels since the outbreak.

Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) scientists have been monitoring air pollution levels over Europe for the past few months using satellite data.

The study focused on data from major cities in Italy, Spain and France comparing levels in March and April 2020 to the same period in 2019. 

These images, using data from the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite, show the average nitrogen dioxide concentrations from 13 March to 13 April 2020, compared to the March-April averaged concentrations from 2019

Madrid, Milan and Rome saw a 47 to 49 per cent drop in nitrogen dioxide but the most dramatic change was in Parish which saw a drop of 54 per cent. 

These changes in air pollution levels coincide with the introduction of stricter quarantine measures  to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus pandemic. 

Nitrogen dioxide is a chemical produced from power plants, vehicles and industrial activity and can be harmful to human health – particularly on respiratory issues.  

Variable weather conditions make it difficult to determine the exact cause of a drop in nitrogen dioxide levels over a short period of time. 

With this in mind data has to be studied over a longer period – weeks rather than days – to remove any impact from weather changes.  

Henk Eskes, from the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute said the weather changes create a ‘large impact on nitrogen dioxide’ levels in the short term. 

‘Averaging data over longer periods of time allows us to see clearer changes in concentrations owing to human activity,’ he said.

‘For this reason, the maps show concentrations over a monthly period and are provided with an uncertainty of 15 per cent which reflects weather variability not accounted for in the monthly averages used.’

As lockdown measures across much of Europe are expected to continue in the following weeks, the KNMI team will work on a more detailed analysis of other countries in northern Europe.    

While no new figures have been released by ESA for the UK, the London Air Quality Network study did show a drop in air pollution levels. 

ESA says nitrogen dioxide levels in Madrid dropped by 48 per cent, in Milan they were down by 47 per cent and in Rome they were 49 per cent lower than the year before

The change in the amount of NO2 in the atmosphere is particularly stark in Paris, Milan and Madrid (pictured), according to the ESA

GPS maker TomTom said the percentage of roads congested with traffic in London dropped from 71 per cent this time in 2019 to just 15 per cent yesterday. 

The UK capital’s levels of ultra-fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, are currently around half that would be normally recorded at this time of year. 

This matter is produced in a large part from vehicles and burning fossil fuels. 

Josef Aschbacher, ESA’s Director of Earth Observation Programmes, says the Tropomi instrument on the Copernicus Sentinel satellite was used to capture the changing atmosphere. 

‘It’s the most accurate instrument measuring air pollution from space,’ he said.

‘These measurements, globally available thanks to the free and open data policy, provide crucial information for citizens and decision makers.’



Carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the biggest contributors to global warming. After the gas is released into the atmosphere it stays there, making it difficult for heat to escape – and warming up the planet in the process. 

It is primarily released from burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, as well as cement production. 

The average monthly concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, as of April 2019, is 413 parts per million (ppm). Before the Industrial Revolution, the concentration was just 280 ppm. 

CO2 concentration has fluctuated over the last 800,000 years between 180 to 280ppm, but has been vastly accelerated by pollution caused by humans. 

Nitrogen dioxide 

The gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) comes from burning fossil fuels, car exhaust emissions and the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers used in agriculture.

Although there is far less NO2 in the atmosphere than CO2, it is between 200 and 300 times more effective at trapping heat.

Sulfur dioxide 

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) also primarily comes from fossil fuel burning, but can also be released from car exhausts.

SO2 can react with water, oxygen and other chemicals in the atmosphere to cause acid rain. 

Carbon monoxide 

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an indirect greenhouse gas as it reacts with hydroxyl radicals, removing them. Hydroxyl radicals reduce the lifetime of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. 


What is particulate matter?

Particulate matter refers to tiny parts of solids or liquid materials in the air. 

Some are visible, such as dust, whereas others cannot be seen by the naked eye. 

Materials such as metals, microplastics, soil and chemicals can be in particulate matter.

Particulate matter (or PM) is described in micrometres. The two main ones mentioned in reports and studies are PM10 (less than 10 micrometres) and PM2.5 (less than 2.5 micrometres).

Air pollution comes from burning fossil fuels, cars, cement making and agriculture 

Scientists measure the rate of particulates in the air by cubic metre.

Particulate matter is sent into the air by a number of processes including burning fossil fuels, driving cars and steel making.

Why are particulates dangerous?

Particulates are dangerous because those less than 10 micrometres in diameter can get deep into your lungs, or even pass into your bloodstream. Particulates are found in higher concentrations in urban areas, particularly along main roads. 

Health impact

What sort of health problems can pollution cause?

According to the World Health Organization, a third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease can be linked to air pollution. 

Some of the effects of air pollution on the body are not understood, but pollution may increase inflammation which narrows the arteries leading to heart attacks or strokes. 

As well as this, almost one in 10 lung cancer cases in the UK are caused by air pollution. 

Particulates find their way into the lungs and get lodged there, causing inflammation and damage. As well as this, some chemicals in particulates that make their way into the body can cause cancer. 

Deaths from pollution 

Around seven million people die prematurely because of air pollution every year. Pollution can cause a number of issues including asthma attacks, strokes, various cancers and cardiovascular problems. 


Asthma triggers

Air pollution can cause problems for asthma sufferers for a number of reasons. Pollutants in traffic fumes can irritate the airways, and particulates can get into your lungs and throat and make these areas inflamed. 

Problems in pregnancy 

Women exposed to air pollution before getting pregnant are nearly 20 per cent more likely to have babies with birth defects, research suggested in January 2018.

Living within 3.1 miles (5km) of a highly-polluted area one month before conceiving makes women more likely to give birth to babies with defects such as cleft palates or lips, a study by University of Cincinnati found.

For every 0.01mg/m3 increase in fine air particles, birth defects rise by 19 per cent, the research adds. 

Previous research suggests this causes birth defects as a result of women suffering inflammation and ‘internal stress’. 

What is being done to tackle air pollution? 

Paris agreement on climate change

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. 

It hopes to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C (3.6ºF) ‘and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F)’.

Carbon neutral by 2050 

The UK government has announced plans to make the country carbon neutral by 2050. 

They plan to do this by planting more trees and by installing ‘carbon capture’ technology at the source of the pollution.

Some critics are worried that this first option will be used by the government to export its carbon offsetting to other countries.

International carbon credits let nations continue emitting carbon while paying for trees to be planted elsewhere, balancing out their emissions.

No new petrol or diesel vehicles by 2040

In 2017, the UK government announced the sale of new petrol and diesel cars would be banned by 2040. 

From around 2020, town halls will be allowed to levy extra charges on diesel drivers using the UK’s 81 most polluted routes if air quality fails to improve.

However,  MPs on the climate change committee have urged the government to bring the ban forward to 2030, as by then they will have an equivalent range and price.

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. Pictured: air pollution over Paris in 2019.

Norway’s electric car subsidies

The speedy electrification of Norway’s automotive fleet is attributed mainly to generous state subsidies. Electric cars are almost entirely exempt from the heavy taxes imposed on petrol and diesel cars, which makes them competitively priced.

A VW Golf with a standard combustion engine costs nearly 334,000 kroner (34,500 euros, $38,600), while its electric cousin the e-Golf costs 326,000 kroner thanks to a lower tax quotient. 

Criticisms of inaction on climate change

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has said there is a ‘shocking’ lack of Government preparation for the risks to the country from climate change. 

The committee assessed 33 areas where the risks of climate change had to be addressed – from flood resilience of properties to impacts on farmland and supply chains – and found no real progress in any of them.

The UK is not prepared for 2°C of warming, the level at which countries have pledged to curb temperature rises, let alone a 4°C rise, which is possible if greenhouse gases are not cut globally, the committee said.

It added that cities need more green spaces to stop the urban ‘heat island’ effect, and to prevent floods by soaking up heavy rainfall. 

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