Lockdown helping cleanup New Zealand's environment

New research has shown the dramatic effect of the nationwide lockdown on New Zealand’s air quality, and climate experts say it’s proof we have the power to improve our environment.

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Experts say it's proof we have the power to improve our environment. Source: 1 NEWS

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.

“This is some of the largest reductions we've seen anywhere in the world.”

NIWA says according to tests carried out at a council testing site at Takapuna, close to the Northern Motorway, nitrogen oxide levels dropped by a third during the morning rush, and were reduced by up to 80 per cent for the rest of the day.

On Queen Street, historically one of the most polluted locations in the country, nitrogen oxide fell to half its usual level through most of the day.

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.

“Air quality in those cities at this time of year is very similar. The traffic levels are dropping in a similar way, so I would expect a similar result there.”

Dr Longley said the results are “quite remarkable”.

“It’s largely because all of our pollution is our own, we’re not drawing it in from other countries, we can’t blame other countries. It really goes to show we can have the cleanest air in the world,” he said.

Testing's underway to measure the reduction of greenhouse gases in New Zealand with Victoria University Climate Scientist Professor James Renwick saying it’s likely those will drop as well.

“What the climate communities thinking is if you see air pollution levels decreasing, you’re also going to see carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gas emissions reducing as well.

“It all comes from energy use, industrial activity, from driving cars from transport. If the air's clearing up then hopefully the emissions of greenhouse gases are decreasing as well, at least in the short term.”

Professor Renwick says the data shows we can have an impact on the climate if we change our behaviour.

“It does demonstrate we can move quickly when we have to as a society, as a Government, as an economy and make changes we need to make.

"We face an existential threat from Covid-19, we’ve got to act right now and so that’s what’s happening.

“Climate change is the same situation, we’ve got only a matter of years to reduce emissions globally by half. We know it can be done and it’s happening before our eyes.”

Dr Longley says the results are a win for public health too.

“This is a really important result for people who live near major roads and are exposed to traffic pollution day after day, now they’ve got respite."

"This virus is out and about and air pollution can make things worse for people who are vulnerable to viruses.”

Professor Renwick says he hopes some changes that have been forced upon the nation will stick around post lockdown, like the move to video conferencing instead of travelling to meetings by road or plane.

“I think the present situation has showed us we can connect without having to be physically face-to-face. In terms of business, academia and science, I’d like to see virtual meetings rolled out and stay rolled out across the world.”