Air pollution is returning to China after a Covid-19 lockdown low, satellite images show.

Meanwhile, a host of forward-thinking European cities are taking steps to avert a return “back to a dirty future”.

Remote readings of the short-lived but harmful gas nitrogen dioxide picked up during late February and remained higher throughout March and April, though do not yet match a pre-lockdown high.

The major sources of manmade NO₂ are combustion processes; heating, power generation, and engines in vehicles and ships, suggesting a return of China’s often highly-polluting industrial activity.

Story continues after the maps.

Satellite time lapse image showing NO2 rising after Covid-19 lockdown
Satellite maps created by the EEB. Credit: ESA / EEB / James Poetzscher
Rising NO2 air pollution in Shanghai China after Covid-19 lockdown
Rising NO2 air pollution in Beijing China after Covid-19 lockdown
Rising NO2 air pollution in Hong Kong China after Covid-19 lockdown
Rising NO2 air pollution in Wuhan China after Covid-19 lockdown

EEB air policy officer Margherita Tolotto said: “During this pandemic, what happens in China has often been a window into what happens elsewhere some time later. Breathing toxic air compromises our health and makes us more vulnerable to health threats. Our governments and the European Commission must prevent harmful air pollution from returning and develop exit strategies which avoid taking us back to a dirty future.”

Milan has announced an ambitious scheme to reduce car use after lockdown. The hard-hit Lombardy region will turn 35 kilometres of streets over to cyclists and pedestrians. Brussels, Berlin and Boston are among the other cities to have unveiled strategies or measures to boost clean transport.

However an effective suspension of all EU efforts to clean up our environment and protect our health has been called for by some corporate lobby groups in Brussels.

Air pollution is the biggest environmental health risk in Europe, according to the EEA, with the problem greatest in cities. Air pollution is a strong driver of lung and heart conditions, which are being linked to higher Covid-19 death rates.

Particulate matter (PM), NO₂ and ground-level ozone cause the most harm and lead to about 400,000 premature deaths annually. NO₂ comes mainly from transport and industry, while domestic heating and agriculture are also important sources of PM.

There are multiple infringement procedures underway against EU countries for failing on air quality. NO₂, and to a lesser extent PM, has fallen in many parts of Europe during Covid-19 lockdown measures, although a drop in other forms of pollution was not matched by a recent spike in emissions from agriculture.

The European Green Deal includes a commitment to table a zero-pollution action plan with major initiatives to cut air pollution.

Tolotto added: “Any pandemic-related economic recovery programmes should match the ambitions of the European Green Deal and its zero pollution goal. This means promoting cleaner energy, smarter mobility, sustainable agriculture and industry to build a cleaner, more resilient future.”

The European Environmental Bureau has published a position paper, From Fear to Hope: Corona crisis measures to help build a better future setting our five things EU leaders must get right in the coming weeks.

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