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Air pollution is already spiking in China with the virus lockdown lifted

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Beijing — Air pollution in China has already bounced back from astounding lows during the country's coronavirus shutdown to monthly levels exceeding those recorded during the same period last year, data show. Chinese government figures confirm a spike in April, which the Finland-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) warns could herald the beginning of a "dirty" economic rebound from the crisis in China.

"Air pollutant levels plummeted during the national lockdown in February, bottomed out in early March and have now overshot their pre-crisis levels," CREA said in a study released this week. While the organization said the return of some pollution was expected, but "what's not obvious is whether air pollution will overshoot pre-crisis levels, especially when many economic sectors are still reeling. Such an overshoot would signify a 'dirty' recovery in which the more highly polluting sectors are leading."

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Air pollution in China's industrial regions was higher in April than it was during the same month last year — the first such year-on-year increase for any month since the virus started prompting widespread closures.

China's Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) said that one key measure, the concentration of tiny airborne particles known as PM2.5, known to be extremely dangerous to human health, was up 3.1% in April to an average of 33 micrograms per cubic meter in almost 340 cities across the country.

The rebound appears to be driven by industrial emissions, as China has permitted most economic activity to resume.

"Large-scale enterprises in construction and manufacturing are understandably desperate to resume production as urged for economic recovery. Though the risk it's posing to environment shouldn't be overlooked and strict supervision is required" Ma Jun, founder of Chinese non-profit organization, the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE), told CBS News.

China's economic recoveries from previous calamities have been associated with surges in air pollution and CO2 emissions.

Recovery from the 2008 collapse saw industry soar over the course of several years, leading eventually to the "airpocalypse" of the winter of 2012-13.

"Another worrying parallel to the current situation is the 'SARS investment boom' started by the government in 2003 to offset the negative economic impacts of the SARS epidemic and resulting in a surge in pollution in the region surrounding Beijing," CREA said in its report.

Now, Ma said the Chinese government's "COVID-19 stimulus package is posing a threat to the environment."

Any hopes of a "green recovery," Ma said, could be, "challenging, given China's current priority is the economy." He urged officials not to miss an opportunity, and to "come up with innovative solutions for the long run."

The change in average monthly concentration levels of four major air pollutants for the same periods in 2019 and 2020 in China are shown on a series of charts provided by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. CREA

Data from a report released this week by CREA show that Chinese regions with significant numbers of industrial plants have seen sharper rises in nitrogen dioxide emissions in recent months than densely populated urban areas. In the residential regions, it's generally vehicle emissions that pollute the air. As many Chinese have continued to stay home in the immediate wake of the country's COVID-19 epidemic — with travel restrictions still in place for many — CREA says the smaller rise in pollutants in those areas makes sense.

While overall passenger transport use in China remains lower year-on-year, CREA and Ma warn that more people may opt for cars over public transport as restrictions are eased.

"The worst is yet to come for Beijing," Ma predicted.

Ma urged officials and companies to let employees continue working from home as much as possible, at least in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, to help ease traffic conditions even after travel restrictions are dropped.

Analysts say the rebound shows the importance of prioritizing green economy in the recovery of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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"There are early warning signs that China's recovery from the COVID-19 crisis is reversing air quality gains, with national average PM2.5, NO2, SO2 and ozone levels catching up to and exceeding the levels at the same time last year," CREA said. "All four pollutants have severe health impacts, and their concentrations in China remain far above safe levels despite air quality gains made since the 'airpocalypse' in 2013."

The COVID-19 pandemic began in China, and the country was also among the first to declare the worst of the crisis over and to begin reopening major sectors of its economy.

Likewise, Ma said there's real concern China's "dirty rebound" will become a global trend.

"Rebounding air pollutant levels are a demonstration of the importance of prioritizing green economy and clean energy in the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis," CREA said. "All eyes are on China, as the first major economy to return to work after a lockdown."

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