Health and Healthcare Systems

China’s air pollution has overshot pre-pandemic levels as life begins to return to normal

Smoke is seen from cooling towers of a China Energy ultra-low emission coal-fired power plant during a media tour, in Sanhe, Hebei province, China July 18, 2019. Picture taken July 18, 2019.  REUTERS/Shivani Singh - RC121189B1D0

China's green recovery is being jeopardized, not prioritized. Image: REUTERS/Shivani Singh

Charlotte Edmond
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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COVID-19

  • Air pollution in China has gone beyond pre-crisis levels for a 30-day period from mid-April.
  • Polluting industries are seeing a spike in activity.
  • Recent studies suggest a correlation between air pollution levels and deaths from coronavirus.

Air pollution in China has risen above levels seen before the coronavirus pandemic for the first time. Having dropped dramatically in the height of lockdown, the concentration of harmful gases seen recently surpasses levels during the same period last year, according to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA).

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The rebound appears to be driven by industrial emissions, and presents early warning signs that the country may be on track for a “dirty recovery” in which highly polluting industries lead the way, the CREA says.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?

China is the first major economy to return to business after the pandemic, and the extent to which it prioritizes a green recovery is being watched. After previous downturns in the country following the global financial crisis in 2008 and the SARS epidemic in 2003, air pollution and CO2 emissions both surged.

recovery reset green environment climate change emissions co2 carbon Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
Changes in pollutant levels. Image: CREA

Back to business

The figures show that air pollution in the country fell to a low point in March, and at the height of the lockdown levels of some greenhouse gases dropped by as much as 40%. Activities including coal-fired power generation, cement manufacturing and oil consumption all plummeted during February and March.

recovery reset green environment climate change emissions co2 carbon Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
National average pollution levels. Image: CREA

But, since industrial activity has been rebooted, pollution levels for a 30-day period from 16 April were above pre-crisis levels. And ozone levels are close to record highs seen in 2018. Coal consumption at five major power generating companies in eastern China rose above 2019 levels for the first time in early May. And both cement and metals manufacturing increased year-on-year in April.

recovery reset green environment climate change emissions co2 carbon Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
Daily coal consumption. Image: CREA

Despite recent efforts to improve air quality and boost energy from renewable sources, China has some of the worst air quality in the world. It is also one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. The World Health Organization estimates that 4.2 million deaths occur worldwide as a result of exposure to air pollution.

A fresh start?

Other research from Harvard University looked at fatalities from the virus alongside historic levels of dangerous particulate matter across 3,000 US counties. They found that increases in particle pollution levels in the years before the pandemic were associated with an 8% rise in death rates.

Meanwhile, in the Lombardy region of Italy people with coronavirus are dying at a higher rate than elsewhere in the country. Milan’s mayor Giuseppe Sala told the Financial Times that it was likely that his city’s polluted air had exacerbated the impact.

A recent YouGov poll commissioned by philanthropic initiative the Clean Air Fund shows at least two-thirds of citizens in diverse countries - Great Britain, India, Nigeria, Poland and Bulgaria - support stricter regulation to tackle air pollution as lockdowns come to an end.

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