Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Saving lives

The purpose of the lockdown is to save lives, by reducing the spread of covid-19. We won't know if its really working for another week, but given the devastation that will result if it doesn't - 14,000 dead is the optimistic scenario - its definitely worth trying. But pausing the pandemic isn't the only way its saving lives. The lockdown is also doing it in another way: by reducing air pollution:

Initial results of air quality monitoring from NIWA show a big drop in traffic pollution in our biggest city.

NIWA Principal Air Quality Scientist Dr Ian Longley tested air quality in Auckland last Thursday, our first day of lockdown, and found huge reductions in pollution compared to levels over the last five years.

“Lincoln road in Henderson on Thursday and Friday afternoon was effectively reading zero for air pollution from road traffic,” Dr Longley said.


Data for Wellington and Christchurch is still being worked on, but with tens of thousands of cars currently off the road, NIWA is expecting similar results.

This matters. Air pollution kills over 1,200 kiwis a year - a hundred every month. A reduction of this scale is likely to significantly reduce that toll (as well as hospitalisations and restricted activity days) for as long as the lockdown lasts.

But it also shows us what New Zealand could be like. A key part of fighting climate change is going to be getting fossil-fuelled cars off the road, replacing them with EVs and public transport. Doing that will have a similar effect on air pollution to what we're seeing today, with similar co-benefits to public health. We should choose that future, rather than continuing down the dirty path we're on.