How COVID-19 Environmental Optimism Went Up In Smog

People walking amid heavy smog in New Delhi
People walking amid heavy smog in New Delhi
Alessio Perrone

PARIS — It was touted last spring as the silver lining of the coronavirus crisis: the lockdowns and travel bans might wind up being a boon for the environment. Air pollution numbers were down, urban birds could be heard chirping and photos circulated of blue skies above some of the typically smoggiest cities in the world.

No place more emblematic than New Delhi, by some measures the world's most polluted city, that appeared cleaner than it had in recent memory. Air pollution levels in April were a fraction of their usual size across much of South Asia — with India's Indo-Gangetic Plain recording one-fourth the pollutants it had in April 2019.

But now, even as the second wave of infections is prompting new shutdowns and continuing to limit international travel, experts see signs that the would-be silver lining was mostly just an illusion. Le Monde"s India correspondent reports that the past few weeks Delhi residents have woken up each day surrounded by a misty haze of pure pollution. Emission levels have boomed again in November, recording 1,021 micrograms of fine particles per cubic meter of air. That's 40 times the upper limit recommended by the World Health Organisation.

Rising particles worldwide: In the last few weeks, air quality has collapsed across the world, too:

• In Lahore, Pakistan, the air pollution has also reached hazardous levels — about 12 times the recommended limit.

• In Milan, Italy, air pollution rose above the recommended limits even while the city was under lockdown as hospitals battled the second wave of coronavirus infections.

• The rise was also observed throughout the Balkans and in Eastern Europe.

Nothing new? Spikes in air pollution occur seasonally as hundreds of millions of people turn on the heating and resort to more polluting transport in the winter. It adds to the emissions injected into the atmosphere by industrial and agricultural activities.

A missed opportunity: But some argue that this resurgence of air pollution is a defeat because the world had managed to curb emissions during the first wave of months-long lockdowns.

• In April 2020, big European cities like Paris, Madrid, Milan and Rome saw a 50% drop in air pollution compared to typical levels, according to the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute.

• A study by researchers in British universities found that CO2, nitrogen oxides and other emissions fell up to 30% globally in April.

Dust and smog in Kathmandu, Nepal— Photo: Prabin Ranabhat/SOPA Images/ZUMA

The long view: Environmentalists say that even if the drop in emissions occurred during lockdowns had been sustained, they would not be enough to prevent the climate from rising 1.5 °C above pre-industrial temperatures.

Economy v. ecology? The new rise in emissions happens as several governments scrap environmental restrictions in the hope they would boost economic recovery.

• In the northern Italian region of Lombardy — still one of the European regions worst-affected by COVID-19 — local authorities have lifted pre-existing bans on polluting vehicles.

• Indian Prime Minister Modi has also eased the country's environmental constraints, seemingly in an attempt to revive the economy. He has auctioned coal mines, the most polluting fossil fuel and eliminated the duty to run environmental impact assessments and public consultations before starting new industrial projects.

• The Indian federal government has repeatedly ignored the dangers posed by high levels of air pollution, advising residents to eat carrots or start the day with music as a remedy in 2019, according to Le Monde.

• Last week, a dangerously high quantity of ozone in the air prompted Mexico City authorities to reintroduce a day-time ban on polluting vehicles, according to Animal Politico.

Why it matters: Other than being the main drivers of man-made climate change, emissions are also one of the world's leading causes of death.

• Some seven million deaths a year are attributable to air pollution, according to WHO estimates. Diseases linked to air pollution include diabetes, headaches, chronic bronchitis, irreversible airflow limitations, cancer, type-2 diabetes and neonatal mortality.

• Air pollution also weakens the human respiratory system, making it more vulnerable to the onset of other diseases.

Bringing it full circle: Several studies have also linked air pollution to a greater risk of dying from COVID-19. A study by Harvard University scientists found that each extra microgram of tiny particulate matter (PM2.5) per cubic metre of air over the long term increases COVID-19 mortality rate by 11%.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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