• Victor Mohan

Massive decline in airborne pollutants spotted over China post the Covid-19 outbreak

According to the Earth Observatory, NASA has recorded a massive decline in Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) over China. Researchers hypothesize that much of this fall in atmospheric pollutants can be attributed to the economic slowdown which is a consequence of Covid-19. The graphic above depicts the change in Nitrogen Dioxide levels between January 1, 2020 and February 25, 2020.

Speaking with the observatory, NASA air quality researcher, Fei Liu, claimed that such declines are rare and infrequent. He recalls a time during the Beijing Olympics in 2008 when the global economy had been brought to a standstill by the recession when a large decline in airborne pollutants was observed. However, even that decline pales in comparison with the current observance.

Empty street in Wuhan
Abandoned Chinese streets (Source: Business Insider)

This again speaks volumes on the cross-cutting impact epidemics can have on countries. In essence, the Chinese government’s efforts in curbing travel and closing local businesses to prevent the spread of Covid-19, an virus which has already killed over 4,000 individuals around the globe, have inadvertently led to the economic slowdown in the region manifesting counter-intuitively as a decline in airborne pollution.

In fact, its not just Nitrogen Dioxide levels that have plummeted since January. An analysis published by Carbon Brief earlier last month estimates that the country’s overall Carbon Dioxide emissions may have been reduced by over 25% in February owing to the sharp cut in domestic flights and industrial production.

Pollution over Beijing
Polluted conditions in Beijing (Source: BBC)

However, despite these decreases in pollution above China, the air in Chinese cities such as Beijing has still not improved. In fact, even the current lowered levels of industrial pollution are enough to keep Beijing’s pollution levels at over 10 times the WHO recommended level. What’s perhaps more unsettling is the possibility that the government, in an effort to spearhead an economic recovery, might soon direct the major polluters to ramp up production. This could not only reverse the environmental gains achieved but perhaps even worsen the conditions. Speaking to Carbon Brief, Li Shuo, a policy adviser for Greenpeace China, had this to say: "After the coronavirus calms down, it is quite likely we will observe a round of so-called 'retaliatory pollutions' – factories maximizing production to compensate for their losses during the shutdown period."