Pollution Rises As China Ends COVID-19 Shutdown

June 4, 2020

As China’s economy reopens, old pollution trends are reappearing. It's a cautionary tale for other countries as they end stay-at-home orders.

As China’s economy reopens, old pollution trends are reappearing. It's a cautionary tale for other countries as they end stay-at-home orders.


Pollution Rises As China Ends COVID-19 Shutdown

Story Transcript

This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Kim Brown: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Kim Brown.

Well, that didn’t last long. At the end of February, I covered a research study here at The Real News, which showed that as China was fighting COVID-19 pandemic and shuttering its economy in the meantime, its notoriously high levels of air pollution plummeted. This included levels of nitrogen oxide, which changes were visible even by NASA space satellites. Here’s NASA Goddard Space Flight Center scientist Bryan Duncan discussing his findings with me.

Bryan Duncan: We expected to see a decrease, but not this much. It just indicates how the Chinese government, how restrictive they were in their efforts to contain the virus by shutting down factories, requiring people to stay at home. And that shows very clearly in the data.

Kim Brown: Much has changed since that segment. For one, China is no longer the global epicenter of the coronavirus. The United States is. And it’s no longer China seeing lower pollution levels, but the US, at least for now that is, with the US still under stay-at-home orders in some of its largest urban areas and virus hotspots.

Now, according to a new analysis by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, China recently exceeded pre-coronavirus levels of pollutants, such as PM2.5, sulfur dioxide, and ozone for the first time, driven in large part by industrial pollution in its massive cities, Shanghai and Beijing. They aren’t just up from pre-COVID-19 levels, though, but higher than at the same time one year ago. That research also showed pollution levels are higher in areas that burn coal and concluded that the ozone levels are even approaching the all-time record levels set in 2018.

The study raises some key questions about what comes next in the economic rebuilding phase in China and beyond. Will it be based around a green stimulus or further entrench polluting industries and perpetuate the climate crisis?

Well, joining us today to discuss this are our two guests. Lauri Myllyvirta is a lead analyst for the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, and he authored the aforementioned study. Amy Westervelt is the founder of the Critical Frequency podcast network and co-hosting its climate podcast show called Hot Take. She also executive produces its show Drilled. The editor-in-chief of the digital print publication Drilled News, Westervelt is the author of the recent Huffington Post article titled It Took A Pandemic To Prove That Individual Actions Alone Won’t Solve The Climate Crisis. And they’re joining us both today. Thank you both so much for being here.

Lauri Myllyvirt…: Thank you.

Amy Westervelt: Yeah, thanks for having us.

Kim Brown: Lauri, I wanted to ask you first, as the author of the opus on pollution in China in the aftermath of the economy starting to open back up, let’s begin with you. What are some of the biggest findings of your analysis, and were you surprised with what you found?

Lauri Myllyvirt…: The big concern with events like this in China is that the old playbook for getting the economy back on track is pouring massive amounts of money into construction, into smokestack industries that led to surges in air pollution and in greenhouse gas emissions after the SARS epidemic in 2003, the global financial crisis in 2008. So we’ve being concerned of the same dynamic playing out again. And indeed, in late April, we saw pollution levels not just returning to normal, but overshooting those normal levels as some of these industries were making up for lost time.

Luckily, the Chinese leadership has taken steps to try and chart a different course. They recently decided that they won’t set a GDP target, an economic growth target, for this year to give some space to pursue other goals, hopefully environmental goals. So it’s still something to be seen how this plays out, but it’s certainly a concerning sign for China and for other countries that start to recover from this, that we are seeing this kind of a spike in pollution.

Kim Brown: Lauri, why do these findings, as you say, signify a dirty recovery for the economic shutdown?

Lauri Myllyvirt…: If you look at the Chinese economy, there’s still a lot of sectors that are reeling from the impact of the coronavirus. So in that sense, you should be seeing a lower level of pollution as well. So what’s happening is that the most polluting parts of the economy, the highly-polluting heavy industries, have been the fastest to rebound and recover, largely driven by the expectation that there will be a massive construction boom to try and improve those economic numbers rather than any real events on the ground.

Kim Brown: Now, Amy, your article grappled with the fact that pollution and emissions rates here in the US have also dropped significantly since the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic shutdown. I wanted to read a quote back to you. You wrote, quote, “The COVID-19 pandemic shows more clearly than ever that individual action to tackle the climate crisis will never be enough without a parallel system of change focused on emissions reductions. It’s not an either/or situation. Individual action and systemic change are both required to move the needle on climate change,” end quote. Can you unpack that a little bit more for us? And what do you make of the Chinese case study in the context of the argument raised in your Huffington Post piece?

Amy Westervelt: Yeah. First of all, I would say that the whole idea … There’s been a lot of talk in the US about, “Look at what we can do when we decide to not emit,” but no one’s made the decision on their own to shelter in place or shut down factories or any of these things. Those are actually policy moves, not individual actions. So the whole idea that this is somehow a proof point that if we just choose to do things differently, that will solve the climate crisis is somewhat flawed.

The other thing I think is that there’s been kind of this false debate between individual actions versus systemic change on the climate question in the US, and really what we’re seeing is that you need both. Yes, you need individuals to be sort of willing to undergo certain changes and to consume differently, but you really need a system that gives them those choices to begin with, and we don’t have that. In the US, we have very limited options when it comes to our power sources, our transportation sources, all of those things. And what we’re seeing right now is that the government is just doubling down on those old options. They’re not at all moving to provide new ones.

Kim Brown: Lauri, China just wrapped up its Two Sessions meetings in Beijing, the most important political meetings of the year. Now, the meetings are also focused in large part, unsurprisingly, on economic recovery efforts as China’s economy is expected to contract this year for the first time since it began recording quarterly GDP back in 1992. Speaking of GDP, at the meetings, the Chinese Community Party announced that it will not use GDP to measure its economic output in 2020. So what’s the significance of that, and does that have any climate change or pollution policy implications?

Lauri Myllyvirt…: The concern was that if China sets a hard GDP target for this year, that would really force the hand of the government at all levels just to concentrate all of their resources to just create GDP with any kind of wasteful projects, make work seems … rather than focus on the real needs of the people in China. You need to create jobs. You need to ensure that people have healthcare access, that people have spending power in spite of the income losses that happened at the start of the year. And all of those things can be done much more efficiently when you’re not constrained by this kind of a target.

I’m going to say that not setting a GDP target is incredibly good news for the environment simply because having that GDP target would have meant stimulating highly-polluting industries to try and hit that a target. But this is also not some kind of a green awakening from Chinese leaders. So if you look at the same work report where there GDP target was dropped, they also dropped environmental targets that would usually be there. So this is really doing away with some of those hard targets to create space and how they use that space, whether they, for example, focus on green energy and other clean investments when they do increase investment and so on. All of that seems like it’s very much in the air. There hasn’t been any kind of a overarching, strong statement from the Chinese leadership that they will pursue a green recovery, something that we have seen from many European leaders, for example.

Kim Brown: Now, Amy, in the US, progressive climate activists say that the time is ripe right now for some type of green stimulus. In fact, a group of activists and scholars called for a $1-trillion package under that billing back in March, but the Democratic congressional leadership has yet to propose or even entertain the idea of a green stimulus. And of course, the Trump administration, as you have documented at Drilled News, has repeatedly offered the fossil fuel industry subsidies and deregulatory measures to keep it afloat amidst its ongoing economic collapse. So what do you make of the politics around this, and why haven’t Democrats followed in the footsteps of places like Spain and the broader European Union in proposing or pushing to adopt a green recovery?

Amy Westervelt: I mean, I think that the Democrats are kind of falling victim to the thing they’ve been falling victim to for a long time, which is sort of giving up before they even try. They are not even proposing … I mean, before Congress even started entertaining stimulus packages or policies, the Republicans were already accusing Democratic leadership of trying to use COVID-19 as sort of the way to push the Green New Deal, which hadn’t happened. And actually, that’s what drove us to start looking at what the fossil fuel industry was doing, because they have this history of sort of accusing their opponents of what they themselves are doing.

And in fact, in this case, they were using the COVID-19 pandemic to push their long-time wishlist of policy that … with everything from fast-tracking pipelines to rolling back regulations to tax breaks they’ve been trying to get for years. I mean, it was like Christmas for them. And meanwhile, the Democrats have suggested almost nothing. I think they’ve congratulated themselves for minor wins on holding back the worst of the fossil fuel industry’s sort of wishlist on this stuff.

But yeah, their performance has been pretty dismal. So the idea that we’re going to see a green recovery package is, I think, kind of pie in the sky at this point. You don’t have anyone with any backbone in Congress pushing that idea.

Kim Brown: Yeah. Perhaps the D stands for dismal in this instance.

Amy Westervelt: Yeah. For real. Yes.

Kim Brown: Well, Lauri, I wanted to end with you because the climate scientists say that if the global powers like the United States, China, and the European Union countries do not act on this issue in this COVID-19 economic recovery period, what type of policies and programs do you think need to be adopted, and how can climate advocates push to make this happen?

Lauri Myllyvirt…: I think one of the big global things about this is that millions of people have experienced the best air quality of their lives. And that experience and then once the air pollution does come back, the experience of that change for the worse is something that can catalyze a lot of action and a lot of desire for things to change. So that’s one of the broad hopes that I have.

The other thing certainly for the United States is that a lot of the action to try and prevent the return of air pollution could also take place on the city and state level. We’ve seen a lot of cities in Europe, for example, taking steps to try and shift to a cleaner transport system once people start moving around, start going back to work and so on. So that’s one of the obvious places to start. The other one is that, unfortunately, I think the uncertainty and the impact from this disease will continue for quite a while, so also the window for pushing for greener recovery measures will be there for some time to come.

Kim Brown: All right. We’re going to leave the conversation there. Lauri and Amy, we appreciate you both making the time to speak with us today. Thank you so much.

Amy Westervelt: Thank you.

Lauri Myllyvirt…: Thank you.

Kim Brown: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.