Air pollution in China more than rebounded in April after the country’s COVID-19 lockdown lifted in March, according to a new study released Monday by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.
In fact, levels of harmful particles were greater in April than they were during the same period last year, the researchers say. The rapid rise in air pollutants suggests that the country returned to its economic status quo, dampening the hopes of environmentalists who had envisioned a “green recovery” in the aftermath of the pandemic to fight climate change and restore the global environment.
“Rebounding air pollutant levels are a demonstration of the importance of prioritizing green economy and clean energy in the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis,” the report’s authors wrote. “All eyes are on China, as the first major economy to return to work after a lockdown. China’s previous economic recoveries, including the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 and the SARS epidemic of 2003, have been associated with surges in air pollution and CO2 emissions.”
The researchers looked at levels of various harmful air pollutants associated with burning fossil fuels, including nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone, and particulate matter 2.5, which refers to fine particles smaller than 2.5 microns in width.
Earlier in the year, as lockdown measures halted most economic activity in the country, air pollution levels plunged throughout the country. Now, however, pollution is skyrocketing, primarily driven by heavy industries that rely on coal power, according to the report.
The authors warn that China’s emphasis on gross domestic product and its construction and manufacturing sectors means that it may be embarking on a “dirty recovery” that sees air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions soar in the months ahead.
After the 2008 global financial crisis, the authors note, China implemented a stimulus plan that heavily favored coal consumption and construction projects. As a result, an “airpocalypse” occurred in Beijing, prompting widespread environmental and health concerns in the country.
A similar program would be disastrous for the country’s environment and air quality, the authors write, and would threaten the health of its people. Air pollution causes millions of premature deaths annually and has been linked to worse COVID-19 outcomes.
A dirty recovery would undermine the effort of other countries to take advantage of the economic slowdown to enact green recoveries, which entail, among other things, investing in sustainable sectors, revamping infrastructure to minimize energy use, and overseeing a massive massive shift toward renewable energy.