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Coronavirus lockdown causes Beirut smog to lift

Traffic has significantly dropped, contributing to 70% drop in nitrogen dioxide, but experts say generators remain problem

The skyline of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, covered by a thick layer of toxic nitogen oxide pollutants in 2016. Getty Images
The skyline of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, covered by a thick layer of toxic nitogen oxide pollutants in 2016. Getty Images

As Lebanon enters its second week of confinement to battle the spread of the coronavirus, residents have been pleased with one unexpected byproduct. Beirut’s smog has lifted.

While diesel generators remain a problem, satellite images show a 70 per cent drop in nitrogen dioxide between November 11 and March 16, a day after the government asked people to stay home.

Levels of nitrogen dioxide, a dangerous pollutant released when fuel is burnt, had dropped by 40 per cent by March 9, which could be caused by the slowing down of activity after schools closed in late February.

Wind and rain have also played a role, said Najat Saliba, head of the atmospheric and analytical lab at the American University of Beirut, who collected the pollutant measurements.

“A drop in NO2 can be due to low emissions – a reduction in the number of cars, in this case – or it can be caused by high wind,” Ms Saliba said.

She said the current drop was “definitely a combination of the two".

Beirut residents took to social media to show how delighted they were to see clearer skies.

“Amazing how quickly the planet can repair itself from the damage we’ve caused,” tweeted Nadine Kheshen, a Lebanese researcher.

Ms Kheshen's post also showed a picture of Beirut taken on Sunday, compared to one taken at the same time last year.

Amal Mudallali, Lebanon’s permanent representative to the UN, tweeted: “Sad it took a terrible virus and lockdown to make one see Beirut from the hills.

"The pollution and smog usually covered the city and you usually see only a grey cloud. It is pretty.”

Nitrogen dioxide levels are unlikely to decrease further because Lebanon relies on highly polluting diesel generators to make up for electricity cuts that vary between three and 12 hours a day.

Weak infrastructure and lack of investment mean that there has not been 24-hour electricity in Lebanon since the end of the civil war in 1990.

Ms Saliba’s studies show that about 60 per cent of the Lebanese capital’s pollution is caused by traffic and the rest comes from diesel generators.

On average, there is one generator connected to every other building.

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Because of this, “the overall measure of pollution is expected to be low, but not as low as other cities, for example, in Italy, where everything is in lockdown", Ms Saliba said.

This is visible on NASA satellite images that show Western Europe as blue, the lowest level of particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, whereas Lebanon and the Middle East appear orange and yellow.

More detailed measuring of Beirut’s pollution levels cannot be conducted at the moment because university researchers cannot access their air-monitoring stations remotely.

The Environment Ministry installed stations all over the country but stopped monitoring them due to lack of funding last year, Ms Saliba said.

Before the lockdown, the World Health Organisation estimated that the concentration of harmful particles of less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, which can cause cancer, is three times higher in Beirut than the safe levels it recommended.

In October 2018, Greenpeace classified Jounieh, a city 20 kilometres north of the capital with fewer than 100,000 people, as the most polluted city in Lebanon.

It sits alongside seven other Arab cities, such as Cairo and Baghdad, in a list of 50 global hotspots for the level of nitrogen dioxide in the air.

Updated: March 25, 2020 03:00 AM

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