Special Report

Shutdown: The Coronavirus

Air pollution in China rebounds to pre-COVID level

Beijing’s landmark Olympic Stadium is shrouded in smog. Photo by Hannah Zhang

 Lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic initially reduced carbon emissions, but the impact was short-lived. A new study suggests that in China, air pollution in May exceeded its pre-crisis level for the first time, a sign that worries environmentalists and upsets people searching for silver linings in the global pandemic.

 The report, published by the global environmental research organization Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), finds that China’s CO2 emissions surged back to a pre-lockdown level in May as power plants and factories reopened in the country. Emissions of health-harming pollutants such as PM2.5, NO2, and SO2 rose by 4% to 5% year-over-year, signaling an unwanted “dirty” recovery that might ruin the country’s efforts to go green over the past few years, the researchers say.

“All eyes are on China, as the first major economy to return to work after a lockdown,” the report said. “It’s obvious that once the economy starts to recover and production and transport to resume, much of the air pollution would return.”

 The study suggests that Chinese provinces that rely heavily on industrial productions are driving the increase, such as the coal-intensive Shanxi in central China and the chemical plants-filled Heilongjiang in the northeast. Meanwhile, air pollution was less severe in megacities like Beijing and Shanghai, which rely mostly on the service sector. 

 Lauri Myllyvirta, senior analyst covering China’s air quality and energy trends at CREA, suggests that the extent to which air pollution will rebound depends on the sources of pollution in different countries. China, for example, is dominated by industrial pollutants from its manufacturing sector, while most European countries are more concerned about carbon emissions produced by cars and other private transportations. Either way, “high-polluting industries have been fastest to recover from the crisis, whereas the service sector is left behind. [That’s why] the pollution has rebounded faster than the economy,” Myllyvirta said during an interview.

 From early February to mid-March, China’s strict lockdown measures caused the air pollution level to plummet by 25%, according to CREA’s analysis of the latest government data. And China is not alone. An article published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change shows that by early April, daily global carbon emissions dropped by 17% year over year, of which China and the United States were the biggest contributors.

 Prior to the pandemic, the Chinese government had laid out ambitious plans to cut pollution and ease the climate crisis, such as decreasing its energy consumption by 15% before 2020. Yet as the pandemic took its toll, the country chose to prioritize its economic recovery over meeting those targets. In late May, China’s Premier Li Keqiang scrapped a key measurement on energy consumption, speaking only vaguely about “a further drop in energy consumption per unit of GDP” while he was expected to set a clear percentage decrease.

 The resurgence in air pollution in China after COVID-19 reminds Myllyvirta of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, for which China shut down factories within 300 miles of the capital but reopened shortly after the games. “I remember the extremely blue sky in Beijing during the Olympics,” Myllyvirta said. “But after that, the pollution comes back. It comes back even worse in the following years.”

Other countries are expected to follow suit. In Europe, where public transportation is being discouraged for the sake of social distancing, “congestion levels and private cars emissions are roughly back to the pre-COVID level even though people are moving around less.” In India, “even the recovery is slow, there is still a risk of pollution coming back next winter because winter is the pollution season.”

Some environmental experts hold a more positive view about the post-COVID outlook on climate change. Jochen Markard, researcher at the Group of Sustainability and Technology in Zurich, and Daniel Rosenbloom, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of political science at University of Toronto, co-wrote in the May issue of Science Magazine that “COVID-19 recovery presents a strategic opportunity to transition toward a more sustainable world” if governments around the world implement greener COVID recovery plans, such as shutting down carbon-intensive companies and encouraging remote working. 

A 48-page report published by the Oxford Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment also refers to fiscal recovery packages as the “biggest driver of the long-term impact on climate.” After surveying 231 key policymakers around the world, the report finds that there are multiple ways to meet both economic and climate goals, such as encouraging clean physical infrastructure investment, building efficiency retrofits, investing in education and training to address structural unemployment from decarbonization, etc.

Myllyvirta agrees that the solution lies in increasing the capacity of public transportation and supporting cleaner businesses rather than energy-intensive projects. Otherwise, the rebound “could cause strong reactions after the extremely pronounced clean air in the first half of this year.”



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