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Factories were shuttered and streets were cleared across China’s Hubei province as authorities ordered residents to stay home to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
It seems the lockdown had an unintended benefit — blue skies.
The average number of “good quality air days” increased 21.5% in February, compared to the same period last year, according to China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment.
And Hubei wasn’t alone.
Satellite images released by NASA and the European Space Agency show a dramatic reduction in nitrogen dioxide emissions — those released by vehicles, power plants and industrial facilities — in major Chinese cities between January and February. The visible cloud of toxic gas hanging over industrial powerhouses almost disappeared.
A similar pattern has emerged with carbon dioxide (CO2) — released by burning fossil fuels such as coal.
As the world’s biggest polluter, China contributes 30% of the world’s CO2 emissions annually, so the impact of this kind of drop is huge, even over a short period. CREA estimates it is equivalent to 200 million tons of carbon dioxide — more than half the entire annual emissions output of the UK.
“As a measure that took place effectively overnight, this is more dramatic than anything else that I’ve seen in terms of the impact on emissions,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at CREA.
But while lockdown measures designed to stem the spread of the virus have caused a momentary uptick in China’s pollution levels, experts warn that when the county starts to reboot its economy the toxic chemicals could up to higher levels than before the epidemic hit.
Coal consumption falls
The country’s major coal-fired power stations saw a 36% drop in consumption from February 3 to March 1 compared to the same period last year, according to CREA
analysis of WIND data service statistics.
The concern, Li said, is that once the coronavirus threat has passed, China will be solely focused on restarting its economy, which was already hurting in the wake of the US-China trade war. That could come at the expense of the environment.
“There might be a round of economic stimulus which would inject cheap credits to heavy industries in China, and as a result of that we might see increasing pollutants and also carbon emissions in the second half of this year,” Li added.
In 2009, the Chinese government launched a giant $586 billion stimulus package in response to the global financial crisis — the majority of which went to large-scale infrastructure projects.
But the resulting explosion in pollution in the following years — particularly in the “airpocalypse” winter of 2012-2013 — led to a public outcry which ushered in the Chinese government’s first national air pollution action plan in September 2013.
Myllyvirta hopes China has learned lessons from the past.
“It was really those previous episodes where it boiled over,” says Myllyvirta, who also warns of a public backlash if the skies turn gray again.
“The reduction in air pollution has been very clear so if the pollution does come back, because of stimulus measures, because of heavy industry going into overdrive to make up for lost time, there could be a counter reaction.”
This brief period of cleaner air should send a message for people to push for longer-term changes. “If we want the children, the elderly, who could live healthily, then we should think how to make business as usual change.
Original source: https://edition.cnn.com