09:04 18.05.2020

Fears of dirty recovery as China air pollution shoots up

Source: The Daily Telegraph
Fears of dirty recovery as China air pollution shoots up

Levels of pollution have risen to above normal levels in China since the country’s lockdown was eased, in an early indication that Beijing may opt for a “dirty” recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

Levels of particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, among other pollutants, were higher in the month to May 8 than in the same period in 2019, according to analysis by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA).

Pollution in the largest cities, Beijing and Shanghai, remains lower than normal, suggesting industrial emissions have significantly spiked as the country gets back to work. Levels of pollution were generally highest in areas that have a lot of coal-burning industry.

Air pollution in the country dropped dramatically during February’s lockdown as industry and transport was stopped. The country’s carbon emissions were estimated to have dropped 25 per cent during the most stringent lockdown period.

"The rapid rebound in air pollution and coal consumption levels across China is an early warning of what a smokestack industry-led rebound could look like: highly polluting industries have been faster to recover from the crisis than the rest of the economy,” said Lauri Myllyverta, the lead analyst at CREA.

The latest data will raise concerns that China is taking a path of quick and dirty economic growth, as was seen in the wake of the 2008 recession.

“As the world's largest CO2 emitter and as the first major economy to reopen after the crisis, all eyes are on China. It is essential for policymakers to prioritise clean energy and reduce the country's economic reliance on highly polluting, energy intensive industries,” said Mr Myllyverta.

Chinese citizens will share the heightened concerns of many around the world for health to be prioritised in the wake of the epidemic. Studies that have drawn links between levels of pollution and worse rates of infection or outcome have so far proved inconclusive, but air pollution exacerbates respiratory conditions such as asthma that are a risk factor in Covid-19 patients.

Last month, China’s new minister of ecology and environment, Huang Runqiu spoke in support of a green global recovery from the crisis.

But Li Shuo, a senior climate and energy policy officer at Greenpeace China, said the spike in pollution was “very worrying” and had reversed a long-term trend of improving air pollution in the country. 

“Beijing's policy makers have rhetorically avoided falling to the same old path as in 2008, now is the time to back it up with concrete actions. Heavy industries will hardly alleviate the economic crisis and will bring the country into an ecological one,” he said.

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