The Coronavirus Lockdown Revealed The Magnitude Of Air Pollution From Agriculture

Satellite images showed noxious pollution vanishing over China and Europe when the world shut down in response to the coronavirus pandemic. But on the ground in Milan, environmental economist Valentina Bossetti was puzzled the air wasn’t cleaner.
“What I was expecting is, well, from tomorrow, air quality is going to be fantastic,” she said via Resources Radio. “But then we were struck by the fact that air quality wasn't as good as we were expecting. What was happening?”
Traffic was shut down in northern Italy. Most industrial activity was shut down. Businesses and schools were closed. Because it was a warm spring, there was less home heating than usual.
“And so the big question is why didn't we have a larger effect?” said the senior scientist at the European Institute on Economics & the Environment. “And the answer, we find, is agriculture.”
In January, February and March, farmers in northern Italy spread livestock excrement on open fields.
“This is a very common practice,” Bossetti said. “And that releases a lot of ammonia. And that ammonia is a precursor of PM2.5.
“What that means is that with ammonia in the air, basically, some chemical reactions happen, and secondary PM2.5 is formed. So the reason why we didn't see the reduction that we expected was mainly due to agricultural activity. And that really led us to thinking about the fact that this is a huge source of PM2.5.”
Air pollution kills 7 million people annually, according to the World Health Organization, and PM2.5, tiny particulate matter, is considered to be air pollution’s primary cause of death.
“I looked it up, and it's as important in the U.S.,” Bossetti said. “But although it's a widespread problem, there's very little monitoring…. There is much less monitoring of this kind of pollution.”
The lockdown allowed Bossetti and her colleagues to demonstrate this agricultural pollution to Lombardy’s Environmental Protection Agency and to the farmers themselves. The research could boost support for technologies that prevent the dispersal of ammonia from fertilizer.
“So now we could quantify how many lives saved you would have with the introduction of these technologies,” she said. “And we can justify, even a subsidy to help them use these technologies that avoid leakage of ammonia in the air.”

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