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‘It’s positively alpine!’: Disbelief in big cities as air pollution falls

Delhi is one of many capitals enjoying improved air quality since restrictions were introduced due to the coronavirus

by Hannah Ellis-Petersen in Delhi, Rebecca Ratcliffe in Bangkok, Sam Cowie in São Paulo, Joe Parkin Daniels in Bogotá and Lily Kuo in Beijing

Sat 11 Apr 2020 00.00 EDT Last modified on Wed 15 Apr 2020 07.58 EDT

The screenshots began to circulate on Delhi WhatsApp groups last week, captioned with varying expressions of disbelief. Having checked the air quality index, something of a sadistic morning ritual among residents of India’s capital, most could not believe their eyes.

Gone was the familiar menacing red banner, indicating how each intake of breath is really just a toxic blast on the lungs, replaced instead by a healthy, cheerful green. Could it really be that Delhi’s pollution levels now fell into the category of … “good”? “It’s positively alpine!” exclaimed one message.

A nationwide lockdown imposed across India on 24 March to stop the spread of the coronavirus – the largest lockdown of its kind attempted anywhere – has led to widespread chaos and suffering, especially among the country’s 300 million poor. Yet in Delhi, the world’s most polluted city, it has also resulted in some of the freshest air the capital has seen in decades.

It is a lockdown silver lining being repeated across the world, as toxic megacities such as Bangkok, Beijing, São Paulo and Bogotá, where varying coronavirus restrictions have been imposed, all reported an unprecedented decline in pollution. Yet it is countered with one cruel irony: with most residents of these cities strictly confined to their homes, few have any way to appreciate this newly fresh air, except through an open window or a during speedy trip to the supermarket.

In Delhi, air quality index (AQI) levels are usually a severe 200 on a good day (anything above 25 is deemed unsafe by World Health Organization). During peak pollution periods last year they soared well into a life-threatening 900 and sometimes off the measurable scale. But as Delhi’s 11m registered cars were taken off the roads and factories and construction were ground to a halt, AQI levels have regularly fallen below 20. The skies are suddenly a rare, piercing blue. Even the birdsong seems louder.

Dr Shashi Tharoor, a politician and author who has been vocal on environmental issues, said he hoped that it was a wake-up call. “The blissful sight of blue skies and the joy of breathing clean air provides just the contrast to illustrate what we are doing to ourselves the rest of the time,” said Tharoor. “Today the typical Delhi AQI hovers around 30 and one blissful afternoon, after a spurt of rain, it dropped to 7.”

“Seven,” Tharoor exclaimed again in disbelief. “In Delhi! Pure joy!”.

Tharoor’s sister Smita, who was visiting from the UK when the lockdown was imposed and found herself stuck in Delhi, was equally effusive. As someone with asthma, she said the city’s air, normally thick with pollution, was usually a health nightmare. But now: “The air is clear, the skies are blue. I see the evening stars with clarity and hear the chirruping of excited birds at this unexpected bonus they have received.”

While India’s powerful car lobby has long disputed that cars are a major cause of Delhi’s pollution, Sunita Narain, director of the Centre for Science and Environment, said the lockdown and resulting rapid drop in pollution showed once and for all just what a polluting role vehicles had in the city.

Narain also stressed that while she wished Delhi was like this “all the time”, adding: “I don’t want people to say ‘Oh, environmentalists are celebrating this lockdown:’ we are not. This is not the solution. But whatever the new normal is post-Covid-19, we have to make sure we take this breath of fresh air and think about the serious efforts we need to deal with pollution in Delhi.”

It is not just Delhi experiencing the clearest skies in years. As pollution dropped to its lowest level in three decades this week this week, residents of Jalandhar in Punjab woke up to an incredible sight in the distance: the Dhauladhar mountain range in Himachal Pradesh. The peaks, which are over 120 miles away, had not been sighted on the Punjab horizon for almost 30 years.

It is the absence of cars on some of the world’s most congested roads that seems to be making the most crucial differences. Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, which only last month had closed schools because the pollution got so bad, has experienced a similar transformation in the air since partial lockdown, mainly due to the fall in road traffic. “We can see quite a big gap between the air quality standard that we have [compared with this time last year],” says Tara Buakamsri, Thailand director for Greenpeace.

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