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Change in the Air

CLEAR SKIES COVID-19 lockdowns in cities such as Rome, Italy, seem to be reducing air pollution. VINCENZO PINTO—AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Cities and countries around the world are asking residents to stay home to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Fewer cars are on the road. Fewer planes are in the sky. With many businesses and factories closed as well, it’s no surprise that air pollution levels have dropped.

Places known for high levels of air pollution, such as Delhi, India, have seen clear skies. Satellite images from NASA and the European Space Agency also show less nitrogen dioxide over Italy, South Korea, and other countries affected by the pandemic. Nitrogen dioxide is a gas emitted by factories and the engines of cars and other vehicles. It’s a source of pollution. It can worsen health problems, such as asthma.

Though a drop in air pollution is welcome, experts warn that it’s unlikely to last. Pollution levels are sure to rise again when businesses reopen and people get back to their normal lives. This has proven true in China, says Lauri Myllyvirta. He works for the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. “Average pollution levels [in China] plummeted in February,” he said in a Twitter post. But the drop was temporary. Pollution returned to the usual levels by the end of March, after many lockdowns in China ended.

Gernot Wagner teaches climate economics at New York University. He says people need to find lasting solutions to air pollution. “The answer to pollution isn’t to stop all activity,” Wagner writes in TIME. “It’s to find ways to live our lives that don’t harm the Earth.”

Stop and Think! Why did TIME for Kids write about the new coronavirus from an environmental perspective? What other aspects of the pandemic would you like to read about?