Aviation shutdown shows we can clean up our air

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A return to pre-Covid levels of travel will increase air and noise pollution for millions of people

In 2010, the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano affected many Easter holidays. The closure of European airspace left many people stranded but millions enjoyed a break from aircraft noise and could look up at brilliant blue skies, free from contrails. Switching off airports allowed scientists to show that Heathrow and Gatwick were affecting local air pollution. Nitrogen dioxide decreased by nearly 30% around some parts of Heathrow and by more than 10% near Gatwick. At the time we thought it was a unique experiment that would never be repeated.

Roll forward a decade and Covid has also had major impacts on aviation. UK passenger numbers have been down by about 90%. This year, nitrogen dioxide near Heathrow and Gatwick has been half pre-pandemic levels, making them amongst the most improved locations in and around London.

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