China’s pollution plummets, thanks to coronavirus

The world, driven mainly by both mainstream and social media, has been plunged into a mind state of constant panic over the coronavirus outbreak. COVID-19, as it’s come to be known, has been portrayed as disastrous to our physical health as well as our economies. As it turns out, it’s not all bad, as China’s pollution has seen a massive drop-off coinciding with the coronavirus outbreak.

Researchers over at the Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument (TROPOMI) aboard ESA’s Sentinel-5 satellite have noticed a stark deviation from their usual data. Levels of nitrogen dioxide being released into the atmosphere by China have plummeted since the start of January.

By itself, that isn’t enough cause to celebrate. It is common for these levels to drop off at this time of year. Chinese businesses normally close for about a week during the Lunar New Year holidays. This year however, the reductions been noticeably higher than previous years. Not just that. They’ve also been lasting well beyond the end of the festival.

“Dramatic drop-off” in China’s pollution due to coronavirus measures

Fei Liu, air quality researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, commented on the situation. “This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event.”

This dramatic drop-off coincides with as much as 30 percent of the Chinese population being on lockdown or self-imposed quarantine. Obviously the intention was to curb the spread of the epidemic. The unintended consequence is also curbing pollution and climate change.

NASA has also reported similar findings from their Aura satellite, the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI). NASA air quality scientist Barry Lefer confirmed the earlier statement. “There is always this general slowdown around this time of the year. Our long-term OMI data allows us to see if these amounts are abnormal and why.”

Finland’s Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) has reported similar findings. They cite a 36 percent drop in China’s NO2 emissions in the week following the holidays.

Maps showing China's pollution before and after coronavirus.
Photo: Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory
The Lunar New Year holidays ended on Feb 4 for most people.

China has also recently taken measures to lower their environmental impact, but that alone doesn’t account for the massive reduction. That said, overall measurements have been lower than previous years. It’s not entirely unwise to be optimistic about this and not expect it to rebound once COVID-19 is maintained.

That said, Greenpeace policy advisor Li Shuo fears a comeback effect on China’s pollution after coronavirus subsides. “After the coronavirus calms down, it is quite likely we will observe a round of so-called ‘retaliatory pollutions’ – factories maximising production to compensate for their losses during the shutdown period. This is a tested and proven pattern.”

China is going green

NO2 isn’t the only pollutant that’s seen a monumental drop in China as an unintended consequence of coronavirus. China’s carbon footprint has also been reduced by over a quarter over the last month. This completely defies the norm of things returning back to normal once the holidays have ended.

Coal use in China has also dropped to a four-year low as of February. Steel production is also at a five-year low. Domestic flights have also been reduced by 70 percent.

The Chinese government has extended the duration of the holidays this year. It’s usually a week-long holiday from January 24 to January 30. This year, it was extended until the 4th, 9th or even the 13th of February. Different provinces and industries got back to work on different dates. All in another effort to slow down the spread of the epidemic.

Despite all that good news, the air quality in China doesn’t seem to have improved enough. Beijing’s air pollution in mid-February still exceeded the World Health Organization’s recommendations by 10 times. Those pollutants don’t leave the air over night. Besides, there’s a large number of chemicals that can degrade the quality of the air we breathe.

Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs spoke to that. “Even without car emissions, these industrial and coal-fired emissions are enough to plunge Beijing into consecutive days of severe pollution amid unfavorable weather. The priority now is to continue strengthening the regulation of industry and the burning of coal.”

Maps showing the difference in China's pollution levels before and after coronavirus.
Photo: Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory
Overall numbers are much lower and the drop is lasting longer.

Coronavirus so far

Despite all the media sensationalism regarding COVID-19, the virus has only killed 3,000 people so far. For some context, the flu kills anywhere between 12,000 and 61,000 people every year, according to the CDC. Other estimates place this number closer to 56,000. This might seem surprising given how long we’ve known about the flu and had a vaccine for it. It’s usually more “at-risk” groups like young children, pregnant women, elderly or those suffering from certain health problems. Most notably compromised immune systems.

The concern surrounding coronavirus is perhaps not so much due to how deadly it is; but rather due to how infectious it is and how fast it’s spreading. Experts are predicting it will soon become “one more flu”. As in, the entire population will need to be vaccinated against it every year. That’s an inconvenience as well as a cost that affects everyone. Not just the small percentage that the virus could turn lethal in.

In less than 60 days, the virus went from being practically non-existent to spreading throughout the world. Granted, the majority of cases have been in China which doesn’t have the greatest track record with transparency. That said, Europe has seen a strong uptick in infections – particularly Italy.

The virus even reached Brazil in the last few days of February. Until then, Latin America miraculously hadn’t had a single case of the virus. Two days later the virus reached Mexico as well. What’s perhaps more surprising is that COVID-19 hasn’t exploded in India yet, despite its proximity to China and very large population.

If there’s one positive takeaway from coronavirus, we should try to maintain China’s reduced pollution These numbers and graphs have made our role in climate change more obvious, along with our ability to mitigate it.

It’s easy to downplay our impact when we aren’t able to quantify it. Now we can.