Transportation activities were suspended all across India during Coronavirus lockdown.

Pandemic and A Dip in Air Pollution

The Coronavirus pandemic and ensuing lockdowns, which began taking effect from early March at the global level have resulted in sudden disruption of transport and industrial activity along with almost whole of social and economic life. This has been done to contain the spread of the virus as well as gain time for ramping up coping strategies and mechanisms for health and economic hazards caused by the pandemic. The large scale curtailment of industrial activity has provided a window to record the effect of vehicular and industrial pollution on urban life. Dip in pollution levels has been reported from every part of the world implementing a lockdown. Some prominent names in the list of cities having witnessed a drastic decrease in pollution are from China, western Europe and Indian subcontinent.

To understand the change in the air quality of Delhi, ambient air quality data collected by the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) at National Institute of Malaria Research (NIMR). Sector-8, Dwarka Delhi was utilized. The 24-hour average concentration of 6 primary air pollutants namely – PM2.5, PM10, Ozone (O3), Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) and Carbon Monoxide (CO), as collated by the World Air Quality Project was compared for 7 weeks between March 18 and May 05 over 3 years – 2018, 2019 and 2020.

The analysis reveals a sharp drop in the concentration of 5 of the 6 pollutants in 2020 during the lockdown period in India. Other than Ozone all the pollutants exhibited a decline in their concentration as compared to a week before the lockdown. Higher concentrations can be observed in the period between March 18 and March 25 in 2020. These concentrations drop sharply in the period beginning from March 25’ 2020. Particulate Matter pollution declined by 1/3 in case of PM 2.5 while in case of PM10 the decline has been 50%. Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) concentration saw a decline of about 2/3 in the same period, a major source of this pollutant is vehicular exhaust. Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) emissions declined by about 30% while the concentration of Carbon Monoxide (CO) emissions remained stable during the period. Ozone (O3) concentration increased in the regular trend but remained far below earlier years’ values. Average PM 2.5 values in 2018 and 2019 were 165 µg/m3 and 150 µg/m3 respectively for the comparison period while the same remained at 109 µg/m3 in 2020. Average value of PM10 concentration declined to 75µg/m3 as compared with 165 µg/m3. PM10 values met National Ambient Air Quality (NAAQ) standards (Central Pollution Control Board, 2009) for 38 of the 49 days and were never more than twice the safe limit during the lockdown period (Figure 1 and Figure 2).

PM2.5 concentration at Sector-8 Dwarka, Delhi.
Figure 1 – PM2.5 concentration at Sector-8 Dwarka, Delhi.
PM10 concentration at Sector-8 Dwarka, Delhi.
Figure 2 – PM10 concentration at Sector-8 Dwarka, Delhi.

The value of Ozone (O3) pollution increased from March 2020 to May 2020 in accordance with the regular trends, as ground-level Ozone concentrations are linked to summer heat. But compared to 2018 and 2019 the decline in Ozone concentration is perceptible as the concentration dropped to an average of 37 µg/m3 compared with 53 µg/m3 and 52 µg/m3 for 2018 and 2019 respectively. These concentrations were always below the safe standard of 100 µg/m3 (refer Figure 3).

Ozone concentration at Sector-8 Dwarka, Delhi.
Figure 3 – Ozone concentration at Sector-8 Dwarka, Delhi.

Major human activity leading to the generation of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) is the burning of fossil fuels. This includes exhaust from vehicular emissions and industries. Such activity subsided suddenly beginning March 25’ 2020 in the national capital territory of India. This resulted in a plummeting of Nitrogen Dioxide level as depicted in Figure 25.4. The Nitrogen Dioxide concentrations declined from a peak of 31 µg/m3 on March 20’ 2020 to 9 µg/m3 on March 25’ 2020 and achieved a bottom of 4 µg/m3 on April 27’ 2020. The average concentration during the 7 weeks remained at 7 µg/m3 in 2020 compared to 23 µg/m3 and 11 µg/m3 during the same period in 2019 and 2018 respectively. This represents a 66% decline compared to the previous year. Only essential transports and services were maintained during this period.

Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) pollution also declined in 2020 compared to 2019 but remained above 2018 pollution levels (refer Figure 5). Major sources of this pollutant are thermal power plants, trains and some diesel equipment and sometimes as a preservative in fruits and vegetable storages. Average values of concentration remained at 4 µg/m3, 16 µg/m3 and 8 µg/m3 for the year 2018, 2019 and 2020 respectively.

Nitrogen Dioxide concentration at Sector-8 Dwarka, Delhi.
Figure 4 – Nitrogen Dioxide concentration at Sector-8 Dwarka, Delhi.
Sulphur Dioxide concentration at Sector-8 Dwarka, Delhi.
Figure 5 – Sulphur Dioxide concentration at Sector-8 Dwarka, Delhi.

Average value of Carbon Monoxide (CO) concentration declined to 4 µg/m3 compared to 11 µg/m3 in 2018 and 13 µg/m3 in 2019. It is generated by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels and is part of vehicle emissions. The concentrations of this pollutant have remained consistently low in the entire study period (refer Fig 6).

Carbon Monoxide concentration at Sector-8 Dwarka, Delhi.
Figure 6 – Carbon Monoxide concentration at Sector-8 Dwarka, Delhi.

The decline in pollution levels during the lockdown period has been comprehensive and has proven the role of transport and industrial sector in urban air pollution. Since the study utilizes data from the residential quarter of the city the prime contributor to the numbers is vehicular emissions and thus signify the major role of vehicular exhausts in urban air pollution. This calls for policies and strategies to tackle this pollution source. A shift of transport to public and non-motorised modes shall be the focus for the future, thus bringing about cleaner air in the cities. Industries should also implement schemes to catch and suppress pollution at source.

Detailed data tables for pollutant concentrations at National Institute of Malaria Research, Sector-8 Dwarka, Delhi have been provided in the appendix section of the downloadable PDF version of the article.


Cover Image by – Vijay Barot | Wikipedia

References

Central Pollution Control Board (2009) National Ambient Air Quality Standards. India: The Gazette of India. Available at: https://cpcb.nic.in/uploads

/National_Ambient_Air_Quality_Standards.pdf. The World Air Quality Project (2020) Delhi Air Pollution Historical Data, aqicn.org. Available at: https://aqicn.org/city/delhi/punjabi-bagh/ (Accessed: 5 May 2020).

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