Air pollution around the world is dropping as countries scale back economic activity in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As far as the environment and our health is concerned, this is a good thing, but only in the very short term. A subsequent emissions surge as economies recover is likely to leave the environment worse off.

An important and encouraging lesson here is that many air pollutants disappear quickly. When we remove the sources of pollution, unhealthy air clears up almost overnight. This immediate feedback on the air we breathe highlights a major benefit of switching to clean energy sources.

Big events like the COVID-19 pandemic provide important scientific information on the impacts of air pollution.

As global economic activity slows we can also expect a drop in CO₂ emissions. The problem is that unlike many other air pollutants, CO₂ exists in the atmosphere for a long time – around a hundred years. That means a short-term drop in emissions won’t cause a decrease in its atmospheric concentration.

Although air pollution is dropping right now, in the longer-term COVID-19 may ultimately be bad news for the environment. During the global financial crisis, a brief drop in greenhouse gas emissions was more than offset by a sharp rebound in pollution as the world economy recovered.

A weak global economy also threatens investment in renewable energy sources, particularly given the availability of cheap oil.

There is also a risk that environmental policies will be relaxed during this time of crisis, as is already starting to happen in the US. Enforcement may also become more difficult.

If the present crisis isn’t seen as an opportunity for widespread structural change, we won’t be breathing easier for long.

Our environment may end up in even worse shape than ever.

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