China's Air Pollution Is Now Worse Than Pre-Coronavirus Levels

Illustration for article titled China's Air Pollution Is Now Worse Than Pre-Coronavirus Levels
Photo: AP

Last month, China finally ended its coronavirus lockdown. While air quality improved dramatically during The Quiet Time, new data shows it was short-lived. What’s more, air pollution is coming back at higher levels than during the same period last year.


A report out Monday from the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, an independent organization that tracks air pollution, shows air pollution is rising throughout China in its post-pandemic reopening. The group monitored particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and ozone between April and May. The findings show that after controlling for weather patterns, all pollutants exceeded last year’s levels after lockdowns lifted.

The results suggest that the pollution is largely coming from coal-fired power plants. Coal is full of sulfur, so when the fossil fuel burns and is released, this sulfur interacts with the oxygen in the air and creates sulfur dioxide. Science, baby. The uptick in sulfur dioxide points to coal plants as the culprit, a finding that’s reinforced by particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide also being at their highest levels where sulfur dioxide spiked.

China has seem similar spikes after economic crises, including the SARS epidemic of 2003 and the global financial shitshow in 2008. Both times, the country prioritized dirty construction projects and burning of coal to jumpstart the economy. However, both of those pollution spikes came before China’s more recent attempts to improve air quality. That includes a “war against pollution” the nation started in 2014 in an effort to cleanup its notoriously noxious air. Prior to the pandemic, China was succeeding at doing just that: A 2019 study found that six of the air quality improvement policies alone resulted in more than 400,000 lives saved in 2017. Now, China appears to be backtracking.

The public health impacts of this pollution are urgent, particularly because the coronavirus crisis is not over. In fact, the province of Jilin is back in lockdown after 34 new cases and one death appeared. Research has found connections between air pollution and covid-19 death rates. In Louisiana’s Cancer Alley—where dangerous levels of industrial air pollution are the norm—the virus is killing black people in communities where air pollution is highest in the state. In China, this air pollution spike may increase the vulnerability of those exposed to the virus.

This reduction in air quality also signals that China may not take a clean energy approach to revitalize its economy. That’s unfortunate since this pandemic is not the only crisis exhausting the world. Climate change is here, and it’s ready to wreak havoc. Implementing policies and measures to help curb emissions is essential, and the spending tied to coronavirus recovery could, in theory, open the door to putting them in place. This is a rare opportunity to change it the world for the better. Yet here we are, ready to ruin it all again.


Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.



I’m conflicted between a Phillip J. Fry “shocked! shocked! Well, not that shocked” and a surprised Pikachu face. Anyone who thinks it won’t be a return to normal here as soon as possible... well.. I have some digital camera film I can sell you.