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COVID-19: An Unexpected Side Effect

Cloud of toxic gas hanging over China nearly vanishes


What's going on?

The dramatic decrease in China’s air pollution levels amid the COVID-19 pandemic can be considered a wake-up call to focus on lifestyle changes we should make on a global scale.


The COVID-19 pandemic forced China to go into lockdown, inadvertently causing a two-month drop in pollution that has potentially saved more lives than the global death toll from the coronavirus. However, this should not be considered a silver lining of the pandemic, which has caused increasing infections, deaths, and lockdowns every day.


Satellite images from NASA showed a massive reduction in nitrogen dioxide emissions in major Chinese cities between January and February. Similarly, carbon dioxide emissions resulting from burning fossil fuels, such as coal, were down by at least 25 percent from February 3 to March 1, according to the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA).


Considering that China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, contributes 30 percent of the global carbon dioxide emissions each year, a 25 percent drop is tremendous. In essence, CREA estimates this figure to equal 200 million tons of carbon dioxide, which is more than half the annual emissions of the United Kingdom.


Stanford University environmental resource economist Marshall Burke calculated the number of potential lives saved due to China’s recent air pollution drop. Burke said that the 2-month decrease in pollution levels could have saved the lives of 4,000 children under the age of 5 and 73,000 adults over the age of 70 in China.


While this does not mean pandemics are good for health, the shutdown of power plants and industrial facilities to curb the spread of COVID-19 has forced the world to take a deeper look at the health costs of the way our economies operated pre-pandemic.