A few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the world was seeking ways to bring back the economy while keeping the virus contained. With clear blue skies becoming a visible mark of the pandemic, it was apparent that air pollution posed a major threat to both health and climate, significantly worsening the COVID-19 outbreak and leading to more deaths than if the world were pollution-free (1).
How the pandemic affected air quality
Even in our pre-pandemic life, air pollution has long been a serious health and environmental concern. Greater than 90% of the world’s population is exposed to unhealthy air. Ambient air pollution alone accounts for an estimated 4.2 million deaths a year and causes a range of health factors including stroke, cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, acute and chronic respiratory diseases (2,3).
Despite air pollution falling by 31% and up to 90% in different parts of the world during the first wave of the pandemic lockdown, it was short-lived. (4,5) As lockdowns are being lifted, pollution is on the rise once again. A study conducted in the UK indicated that air quality had met or even exceeded pre-pandemic levels in 80% of its cities (6). Another study conducted in China has reported pollution levels beyond pre-pandemic levels, with ozone levels close to the record high of 2018 (7). Countries around the world are now urging their populations to keep their indoor environments as well ventilated as possible, while putting air quality on top of national agendas as we go back to our “new normal”.
Professor Yuguo Li, Professor of Building Environment, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Hong Kong:
“Consider the COVID-19 pandemic a wake-up call for indoor air quality. More than 1.6 million COVID-19 infections worldwide most probably occurred in poorly ventilated indoor spaces. If there was good ventilation, the COVID-19 pandemic crisis would have been reduced, so the pandemic is probably a ventilation crisis. It is important to invest in smart filtration and good outdoor air quality.”
How do we tackle air quality whilst aiming for net zero?
If our world is to halve emissions by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2050, it is clear that a sustainable built environment is vital in mitigating climate change and tackling the global air pollution crisis. Many countries, businesses and organisations around the world have pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. The movement continues to gain momentum with campaigns such as Race to Zero, Race to Resilience and the WorldGBC’s Health & Wellbeing Framework, which support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), where air quality is highlighted in SDG Targets 3.9 and 11.6.
Jon Douglas, Director of Healthy Building Services Solutions, Johnson Controls:
“In the world of COVID-19, our buildings need to do more than they have previously done. Supplying clean air requires enhancements to ventilation, filtration, and disinfection systems, each of which consume additional energy. The way to get sustainable, clean air is to measure indoor air quality and adjust building operation to provide appropriate indoor air quality where people are.”
The UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) is set to take place in November 2021 and for the first time in five years, the summit has a dedicated Cities, Regions and Built Environment Day. This will focus on how the world can halve emissions by 2030 and transition to a decarbonised built environment by 2050. As the impacts of climate change increase, a crucial aspect is how we can create sustainable, resilient societies where the health and quality of life for people is protected now and in the future. For the building sector that means creating, renovating and operating net zero buildings, while also minimising exposure to pollutant and virus particles, especially in the aftermath of a global pandemic.
Dr. Nada Chami, Head of Product & Innovation, Saint-Gobain UAE:
“…We need to always monitor the spaces that we spend most of our time in. Whether it’s our homes or offices or our kids’ schools. Without data we cannot detect problems and we cannot track performances, so we need to invest in good monitoring equipment. On the other hand, because we need to compensate for a good ventilation system which is unavoidable, we need to be more conscious about behaviours and our consumption patterns, because they can hugely impact energy consumption at a larger scale…”
Air pollution is a substantial contributor to climate change, and the largest environmental threat to human health. Furthermore, internal air pollutants from poor quality building fabric, unhealthy materials or unsuitable ventilation pose further risks to human health beyond those circulating in our outdoor air. Ventilation is a key strategy for managing viral transmission and creating net zero buildings, while achieving a healthy indoor and outdoor built environment.