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

NO₂ maps based on ESA satellite readings. Credit: ESA / EEB / James Poetzscher

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.”

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

The European Green Deal includes a commitment to put forward 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.”

Images combine ESA Sentinel-5 satellite readings over multiple days in 2019 vs 2020, following recommended image processing guidelines. Data used is well above the minimum 0.5 quality benchmark. Original image files available here.