A Silver Lining in Singapore’s Clouds: Circuit Breaker Reduces Air Pollutant Levels

Assessing social distancing measures and “lockdown” responses to the COVID-19 pandemic has been of high interest to academia, not only in determining policy effectiveness with regards to controlling cases, but also due to the unintentional social benefits for the environment. For Singapore, which has historically been faced with the challenge of keeping air pollutant levels within the WHO recommended guidelines, restricted mobility measures seem to have brought about a silver lining in the clearer skies.

ACI research finds that as work-from-home became the default option for employees during the circuit breaker, workplace mobility in Singapore saw a sharp drop in early April. At the start of the pandemic and prior to the circuit breaker, workplace mobility in Singapore was at about 93% of pre-pandemic times. It immediately dropped to approximately 39% once the circuit breaker policy was put into effect. Additionally, the average PM2.5 AQI after the commencement of the circuit breaker reduced to a level 12% lower than before the measure was put into place.

The correlation between air pollution and workplace mobility during the circuit breaker stems from the introduction of work-from-home practices, as well as the reduction of high-polluting industrial activity such as oil refineries, in view of a slowing global economy. The National Environment Agency (NEA) has observed that since the commencement of circuit breaker, Singapore’s daily pollutant levels have been in line with World Health Organisation (WHO) air quality guidelines.

As such, the next question to consider, is whether Singapore will be able to sustain this healthier air quality level once the nation establishes its “new normal” in a post-COVID era. This could be feasible if widespread shifts in the design and technologies of the transport and urban planning industries, such as higher use of electric vehicles and renewable energy sources evolve to be a more significant part of the nation’s post-COVID policy plan. As such, while consumption is currently at a lull, the silver lining would be the opportunity for industries that have high greenhouse gas emissions to recalibrate their technologies to incorporate sustainable energy sources, and for government policy to increase investment in such activity.

By Sunena GUPTA

Researchers: ZHANG Xuyao, MAO Ke, ZHU Yan

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