Smog dissipates from China as COVID-19 slows global output

Lilla Marshall tells us about one of the particularly curious effects of the global pandemic

Lilla Marshall
16th March 2020

As the coronavirus causes chaos across the world, NASA have shown that every smog cloud has a silver lining - as the efforts from the Chinese government to contain the virus have increased the quality of air within the country.

China's reliance on coal has caused significant issues within the country, due to high usage within the most developed regions. This has resulted in the formation of a toxic smog: a thick, black cloud full of small dust particles that can trigger respiratory issues or even increase an individual's susceptibility to cancer. The Chinese government have attempted many schemes to minimise the smog, such as investment in wind power, but success in removing the smog has been limited.

The extent of air pollution in China usually dips in February, due to factories closing for the Lunar New Year. However, in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, the levels of air pollution have not recovered from this dip - with scientists suggesting the virus is responsible.

The virus was first detected in late 2019, in the province of Wuhan, Hubei. Transport links to and from this area were blocked: leading to a decrease in air traffic in this area and preventing the movement of supplies. As a result, many businesses within the area could not function and factories had to temporarily close.

NASA and the European Space Agency satellites have been monitoring air pollution levels in this region and it is estimated that nitrogen dioxide (a key pollutant) levels have decreased by 30%.

“This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event,” said Fei Liu, an air quality researcher at NASA.

On a global scale, the COVID-19 outbreak is decreasing the demand for air travel, which is a significant contributor of greenhouse gases. Many have blamed the virus for the bankruptcy of UK domestic travel company, FlyBe. The International Air Transport Association have estimated that a full outbreak would cost airline companies $113bn.

Despite this decreased demand, however, The Times of London have reported that many companies are flying empty planes so that they can keep the highly competitive flight slots. As a result, gallons of fuel are being wasted, as ghost trains travel across the world: with just a pilot onboard.

Seemingly recognising her common goals with the virus, young climate activist Greta Thunberg has criticised world leaders and the global media for not treating the climate crisis with the same urgency that they are treating the viral outbreak.

"It is shameful that for so long the climate and environmental emergency has been ignored. We are still in a crisis that has never once been treated like a crisis," Thunberg told demonstrators in Brussels.

While the few benefits of the outbreak are very likely to be temporary, with the smog expected to return once factories are able to reopen, it has to be slightly reassuring that a difference can be made in times of urgency.

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