Rethinking Air Pollution After the Virus

Some of the most powerful images that circulated around the world as a result of Covid-19 lockdowns were of theunsullied blue skies.

The pandemic that’s so far killed more than 350,000 people worldwide catalyzed calls to make cleaner air a permanent condition, and as the death toll from Covid-19 mounted around the world,studies in Germany, Italy, the U.K., and the U.S. stoked public concern that the damage to health from poor air had made the pandemic worse. What had formerly been mostly a debate about the long-term effect of emissions on climate change suddenly became an immediate matter of life and death.

50,​820 Million metric tons of greenhouse emissions, most recent annual data

Temuco, ChileMost polluted air today, in sensor range 0 6 5 4 3 2 0 3 2 1 0 9 0 7 6 5 4 3 .0 0 9 8 7 6 0 4 3 2 1 0 0 6 5 4 3 2 0 8 7 6 5 4 0 1 0 9 8 7 0 0 9 8 7 6 Parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere

$81.​9B Renewable power investment worldwide in Q4 2019 -7.​78% Today’s arctic ice area vs. historic average 90% Carbon-free net power in Brazil, most recent data

The epicenter of thebattle for clean air is also the origin of the pandemic: China, the worst polluter, the biggest user of coal, and the location of the fastest and largest urbanization in history, a nation that put more vehicles on the roads last year than Japan and the U.S. together.

China’s pursuit of economic growth above all else has complicated its commitment to a green agenda in the past. The nation has struggled to curb coal power, and to help automakers, it’s already delayed tightening emission controls on vehicles.

“It will be extremely hard for China’s environment work this year,” says Xu Jintao, a professor at Peking University’s National School of Development. But, he says, “the central government’s determination to improve air quality is strong. … People wouldn’t accept it if the air gets very bad again.” —With Karoline Kan and Adam Majendie

— With assistance by Karoline Kan, and Adam Majendie

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