Improved urban air pollution in China during lockdown…is this true and will this continue?

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Urban air pollution is a serious matter to many individuals, not just in China. Due to COVID-19, lockdown occurred  in Wuhan, Hubei on January 23. This reduced the risk of the transmission of the virus and prevented more death. One-third of the cities in China established strict regulations which limited daily activities, economic and leisure activities, and the opening of businesses.

Environmentalists show that this also had positive environmental impacts in many parts of China. The country’s air pollution has been a problem due to high concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2). To give you some background knowledge, the measure of the air quality in various cities is displayed using the Air Quality Index (AQI). In Beijing and Chengdu, for example, the average air quality in 2019 was reported as “unhealthy,” and the main source was found to coal consumption which largely contributes to teconomic growth.

In 2017, China invested 2.5 trillion RMB ($367 billion) on renewable power generation including solar and wind energy. China successfully became the leading country with the highest investments made on clean energy. This, however, did not happen in 2019 when the overall coal consumption increased once again as companies relied on cheaper coal energy.

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With businesses having to close temporarily, the use of transport and industrial activities  decreased. The lockdown had unintentional social and environmental benefits, preventing other health problems such as asthma and other respiratory defects, and even deaths partly due to polluted air. Professors and researchers of Environmental Economics from the University of Birmingham reported that this lockdown reduced 63% of NO2 concentrations in the atmosphere; they estimated that this prevented over 10,000 deaths across the whole country.

 In fact, another consequence of this is that this allowed China to reach the ‘safe limit’ proposed by the World Health Organisation (WHO). This is similar to some European countries such as the UK which reported to also have very high concentrations of NO2 and is not too far behind China. We can assume that air quality in other countries have also improved in places where strict regulations have been established during lockdown; the main difference would be the significance in the change in air quality during months of quarantine.  Clearly, the lockdown gave people the chance to recover from the heightened level of air pollution across different cities. This reduction in industrial activities can be a step forward to a “green recovery”.

Apart from the fact that better air quality increased the average life expectancy in China, researchers such as Xue have found that it also had an impact on mental health and productivity. Therefore, it is safe to assume that the lockdown may also have had benefits on people's mental health. Additionally, research conducted by Guojun He, Yuhang Pan and Takanao Tanaka shows that the positive impacts of lockdown on the air quality appeared to be more visible in larger and busier cities with more advanced economic development. This is where there would be more industrial activity, reliance on coal energy and use of transport, which all contribute to emission of pollutants.

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This should help us see the need to regulate certain activities which are contributing to pollution. Carpooling or riding a bike may be a better way to go to work. Regardless of lockdown regulations being eased now, we can reduce our carbon emission as much as possible, whether that activity is within the household or outside. 

Even now, there are some still regulations across the country such as checking someone's temperature before entering shops and restaurants, as well as wearing a mask. Unfortunately, environmentalists have observed that the concentration of pollutants, particularly NO2, are slowly rising once again and it may reach the same level as it was before lockdown. For example, in Shanghai, it was found that NO2 level has increased by 9% compared to last year. On the other hand, there are some areas which displays contrasting data: in Wuhan, NO2 levels are just under 14% lower than last year.

Lauri Myllyvirta, the lead analyst of the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (Crea), highlighted that “it is essential for policymakers to prioritise clean energy,” stressing the importance of the nation’s plan to invest in more renewable energy. For a more recent update, around 400,000 people were locked down near Beijing as new cases arose last month. This lockdown, although undesirable, had brought certain health benefits to us. Let's hope the latter continues.

Article by Andrae Fegalquin

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