A glimpse of blue

Virus-hit China sees drastic air pollution drop


No traffic means far less pollution

Twenty-one of the 30 cities with the dirtiest air in the world are now in India, according to the latest rankings of PM2.5 pollution from IQAir, a provider of technology that protects people from airborne pollutants.

The worst of the lot is Ghaziabad, not far from New Delhi. But there were only two cities in the group from China (Hotan and Kashgar, both in Xinjiang, a region that suffers from sandstorms) and air quality improved at a national level for the second year in a row.

All the same, there’s little to celebrate yet: 98% of China’s cities still had pollution last year that exceeded World Health Organisation safety guidelines.

China’s scores would have been much better if the testing had happened in the last few weeks, however, when air pollution has been at some of its lowest levels for years. And for that, thank the coronavirus – or more accurately, the effort to contain it.

An assessment last month by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), which is based in Finland, reckons that emissions of another pollutant – carbon dioxide – were about a quarter lower in the first three weeks of February compared to the same period last year. The findings were reinforced by dramatic satellite images from NASA tracking nitrogen dioxide, another major pollutant. The mapping shows the ugly orange of large concentrations of the gas over much of central and northeastern China for the first three weeks of January. But in the last three weeks of February the map goes pale blue, showing hardly any visible pollution at all.

There’s often a drop-off in emissions over the Chinese New Year holidays when businesses close for the break and industrial activity tapers off. But this year’s decline has been much more dramatic because work hasn’t resumed as per normal. Scientists added that the changes in smog levels first became apparent around Wuhan, the city at the centre of the outbreak, but then spread across the country.

Green campaigners will say that the findings prove that pollution could be further reduced if regulators had more of a stomach for the fight. Previous campaigns to clear the skies have been more narrowly focused, often in preparation for major events (the Olympics in Beijing in 2008 or the blue skies that greeted delegates for the APEC summit in the capital in 2014; see WiC262). But the coronavirus has been shredding China’s filthy air on a different scale, blowing a vast hole in the layer of pollution that shrouds much of the country.

The counterargument is that pollution may have dropped markedly over the last few weeks but that these kinds of reductions can’t be sustained without economic costs that the government regards as too high to bear.

Lauri Myllyvirta, the author of the study from the CREA, noted some startling declines in a number of indicators for the period, for instance: coal consumption at power stations at a four-year low; output of most of the key categories of steel at the lowest for five years; operating rates at the main oil refining plants dwindling to levels last seen in 2015.

Together the declines are contributing to the kind of slowdown that China’s political bosses will be hell-bent on remedying in the weeks ahead. Indeed, it seems more than likely that the smog will be back as Beijing cranks up the economy once more. The deceleration also comes at a time when the government seems determined to deliver on a long-term commitment to doubling China’s GDP per capita in the decade since 2010, which is going to require GDP growth of close to 6% in 2020. That makes it even more likely there will be state encouragement for a rapid rebound once the virus has been brought under firmer control.

In fact, that is already happening: emission levels in Hebei – China’s top steelmaking region – in late February were back above the equivalent period last year and they have nearly caught up on last year in Shanxi – a major coal producer – as well. Indeed the satellite data suggests that nitrogen dioxide had risen by nearly half from February 17, according to the latest CREA report, although that’s still about a fifth below the equivalent period last year.

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