China's Air Quality Is About to Get a Whole Lot Worse Because of Coronavirus

Authorities are suspending enforcement of environmental rules while factories make up for lost production during the coronavirus pandemic.
March 16, 2020, 5:25pm
Women wear face masks to protect against the COVID-19 coronavirus as they walk on a sidewalk on a polluted day in Beijing on February 20, 2020.

The coronavirus pandemic gave China something it hasn’t seen in years: bright, blue, smog-free skies.

That’s about to change.

The country is already planning to relax environmental rules to allow Chinese factories idled during the epidemic to get back up to speed. The Chinese government is signaling that addressing pollution won’t be a top priority. The government insists that environment standards remain in place — they just won’t be enforced as aggressively.

“The environmental supervision should be adjusted in accordance with practical needs and social economic situation,” said Cao Liping, director of Ecological and Environmental Enforcement bureau at the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, at a press briefing last week.

Experts have been warning that the virus could lead to an increase in pollution after the pandemic passes as countries try to make up for losses from production slowdowns during the pandemic.

“When the Chinese economy does recover, they are likely to see an increase in emissions in the short term to sort of make up for lost time, in terms of production,” Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist and the director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute, which advocates for climate action, told Wired.

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Air pollution over China, the world’s largest emitter, has dropped substantially due to the pandemic. Striking images published by NASA earlier this month show pollutants essentially evaporating as the coronavirus overtook the country between January and February of this year.

Air pollution kills about 1.6 million people annually in China — and a Stanford researcher estimates that a two-month drop in pollution could have spared about 80,000 premature deaths. About 3,200 people have died inside China during the course of the outbreak.

The pollution has dropped over Italy during the course of the outbreak, too.

“We are very confident that the reduction in emissions that we can see coincides with the lockdown in Italy causing less traffic and industrial activities,” Claus Zehner, who manages the agency’s Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite mission, said in a statement.

But just because emissions are temporarily down around the world doesn’t mean this is a cause to celebrate. “It is, of course, not a good thing,” Riccardo Valentini, a professor at Italy’s University of Tuscia and director of the impacts division of the Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change, wrote in an email to the Washington Post. “This is not the way to reduce emissions!”

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Experts warn that not only will emissions ramp up to make up for lost ground, but the pandemic could stifle long-term action to combat the climate crisis. Companies are less likely to pony up for investments that would reduce their carbon footprints during a recession, and an economic slump could reduce investments in green tech.

“If the global economy crashes, emissions will drop short term as we produce fewer goods, but climate action will slow. Employment trumps environment in politics,” Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University and chair of the Global Carbon Project, told CNBC. “If companies are hurting, they may delay or even cancel climate-friendly policies that require investments up front.”

Cover: Women wear face masks to protect against the COVID-19 coronavirus as they walk on a sidewalk on a polluted day in Beijing on February 20, 2020. (Photo: GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)