What have COVID-19 lockdowns meant for air pollution? UNU-FLORES investigates

  • 2022/10/28

    Did the time spent in preventative lockdown due to COVID-19 make a difference to our air quality? A new study by UNU-FLORES measured the levels of air pollution in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia – with some surprising results. 

    As the world ground to a halt in response to the COVID-19 lockdown measures, the prospect of improving the current state of the environment was discussed as a potential silver lining to such inconveniences.  A new study measured some of these effects and found that while some pollutants have substantially decreased, levels of Sulphur dioxide actually increased during lockdown. But what are the reasons for this – and the implications of these measurements?

    The study in question – focused on the case of Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia – allocated the Sulphur dioxide increase to the use of coal brickettes in heating homes. Sulphur dioxide “is typically emitted by the industry and energy production”, however, a change in heating material in Ulaanbaatar’s urban areas (from raw coal to brickettes), combined with more time spent in the home (and thus warranting more heating) has led to this rise.

    Interestingly, however, the research team (alongside three partner universities and Ulaanbaatar’s National Agency for Meteorology and Environmental Monitoring) did find that other pollutants (namely NO2, PM10 and PM2.5) had noticeably decreased. This was deduced from a comparative analysis of air pollution released during lockdowns and the situation during the previous five winter periods.

    Of course, considering that COVID-19 is an airborne virus, these reduced pollutants are no doubt beneficial in slowing the spread, severity and mortality of infection. Indeed, the pollutants that had shown reduced levels are ones that worsen the effects of COVID-19.

    This highly productive partnership between UNU-FLORES and Mongolia is hopefully the first of many, with Professor Daniel Karthe already holding extensive experience in the region from his previous position as Professor of Environmental Engineering (and later Vice-Rector of Research) at the German-Mongolian Institute for Resources and Technology (GMIT), in Ulaanbaatar. Indeed, with both universities intending to partner up further to supervise masters students, this relationship is a promising step for further research in this very relevant transitional part of the world.

    Overall, however, regardless of whether a pollutant’s concentrations were shown to be reduced or increased, the case of Ulaanbaatar still warrants further investigation – as air quality did not always meet the national standard levels, even with a decrease in pollutant concentrations. To that end the authors emphasise the importance of more research on the consequences of fuel substitution to better understand its environmental impact and, subsequently, to better inform decision-making.

    You can read the study in full here.