Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Air Pollution Returns

The temporary respite for pollution looks like it is over. Air pollution in China has returned to pre-pandemic levels, and scientists say Europe may follow suit.

Air pollution has been linked to heart and lung damage and many other conditions including diabetes and damaged intelligence. It is likely to affect virtually every organ in the body. Air pollution causes at least 8 million early deaths a year, and cleaner skies were seen as one of the few silver linings of Covid-19. There is growing evidence linking exposure to dirty air to increased risk of death from Covid-19, prompting calls to keep air pollution low to help avoid the dangers of a second wave of infection. 

Data from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (Crea) shows concentrations of fine particles (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) across China are now at the same levels as one year earlier. In Wuhan, the city at the centre of the epidemic, NO2 levels are now just 14% lower than last year, having briefly dropped by almost half. In Shanghai, the latest levels are 9% higher than last year.

The energy consultancy group Wood Mackenzie predicts China’s oil demand will recover to near normal levels in the second quarter of 2020.

“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,” said Crea’s lead analyst, Lauri Myllyvirta. “Highly polluting industries have been faster to recover from the crisis than the rest of the economy. It is essential for policymakers to prioritise clean energy.”

“We do expect pollution to rebound, but we have not been able yet to show that,” said Vincent-Henri Peuch, the director of Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (Cams). He noted that the Cams data showed average air pollution levels across cities. “Next to a busy road, the effect of traffic reduction will be higher – up to 70% or 80% [reduced pollution] in places,” he said.

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