A new study from Auckland, New Zealand, leverages COVID-19 lockdown as a ‘natural experiment’ to reveal significant yet nuanced reductions in air pollution, underscoring the complex relationship between traffic emissions and air quality..

Hamesh Patel, Nick Talbot, Jennifer Salmond, Kim Dirks, Shanju Xie, Perry Davy

Please read the abstract for a detailed overview:


The current changes in vehicle movement due to ‘lockdown’ conditions (imposed in cities worldwide in response to the COVID-19 epidemic) provide opportunities to quantify the local impact of ‘controlled interventions’ on air quality and establish baseline pollution concentrations in cities. Here, we present a case study from Auckland, New Zealand, an isolated Southern Hemisphere city, which is largely unaffected by long-range pollution transport or industrial sources of air pollution. In this city, traffic flows reduced by 60-80% as a result of a government-led initiative to contain the virus by limiting all transport to only essential services. In this paper, ambient pollutant concentrations of NO2, O3, BC, PM2.5, and PM10 are compared between the lockdown period and comparable periods in the historical air pollution record, while taking into account changes in the local meteorology. We show that this ‘natural experiment’ in source emission reductions had significant but non-linear impacts on air quality. While emission inventories and receptor modelling approaches confirm the dominance of traffic sources for NOx (86%), and BC (72%) across the city, observations suggest a consequent reduction in NO2 of only 34-57% and a reduction in BC of 55-75%. The observed reductions in PM2.5 (still likely to be dominated by traffic emissions), and PM10 (dominated by sea salt, traffic emissions to a lesser extent, and affected by seasonality) were found to be significantly less (8-17% for PM2.5 and 7-20% for PM10). The impact of this unplanned controlled intervention shows the importance of establishing accurate, local-scale emission inventories, and the potential of the local atmospheric chemistry and meteorology in limiting their accuracy.

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