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There’s an unlikely beneficiary of coronavirus: The planet.

Rebecca Wright, CNN

Factories were shuttered and streets were cleared across China’s Hubei province as authorities ordered residents to stay home to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

It seems the lockdown had an unintended benefit — blue skies.

The average number of “good quality air days” increased 21.5% in February, compared to the same period last year, according to China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment. 

And Hubei wasn’t alone.

Satellite images released by NASAand the European Space Agency show a dramatic reduction in nitrogen dioxide emissions — those released by vehicles, power plants and industrial facilities — in major Chinese cities between January and February. The visible cloud of toxic gas hanging over industrial powerhouses almost disappeared.

“This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event,” says Fei Liu, an air quality researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “I am not surprised because many cities nationwide have taken measures to minimize the spread of the virus.” 

A similar pattern has emerged with carbon dioxide (CO2) — released by burning fossil fuels such as coal. 

From February 3 to March 1, CO2 emissions were down by at least 25% because of the measures to contain the coronavirus, according to the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), an air pollution research organization. 

As the world’s biggest polluter, China contributes 30% of the world’s CO2 emissions annually, so the impact of this kind of drop is huge, even over a short period. CREA estimates it is equivalent to 200 million tons of carbon dioxide– more than half the entire annual emissions output of the UK.

“As a measure that took place effectively overnight, this is more dramatic than anything else that I’ve seen in terms of the impact on emissions,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at CREA. 

But while lockdown measures designed to stem the spread of the virus have caused a momentary uptick in China’s pollution levels, experts warn that when the county starts to reboot its economy thetoxic chemicals couldup to higher levels than before the epidemic hit. 

Coal consumption falls

A fall in oil and steel production, and a 70% reduction in domestic flights, contributed to the fall in emissions, according to the CREA. But the biggest driver was the sharp decline in China’s coal usage. 

China is the world’s biggest producer and consumer of coal, using this resource for 59% of its energy in 2018. As well as running power plants and other heavy industries, coal is also the sole heat source for millions of homes in the vast rural areas of the country.

The country’s major coal-fired power stations saw a 36% drop in consumption from February 3 to March 1 compared to the same period last year, according to CREA analysis of WIND data service statistics. 

“The largest consumers of coal — coal-fired power plants — have been affected a lot because electricity demand is down,” said Myllyvirta. “I think it’s clear that this effect will continue for the next weeks and months, because there has also been a major impact on the demand side of the economy.” 

In 2017, President Xi Jinping promised to make combating pollution one of China’s “three battles,” and the following year the Ministry of Ecology and Environment was created. 

The policies have resulted in a significant impact, with overall pollution levels 10% lower across Chinese cities between 2017 and 2018, according to a report released last year by Greenpeace and AirVisual.

Climate activists say the crisis could provide a window to ramp up these promised reforms. 

“We would very much advocate for China to foster this opportunity to transform its economy, to break apart from the old,” said Li Shuo, a senior climate policy adviser for Greenpeace East Asia. 

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