Pollution levels over China’s biggest cities and industrial hubs appear to have eased significantly in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak and the country’s economic slowdown is the likely cause.

Images released by NASA and the European Space Agency showing the levels of nitrogen dioxide over China show a drastic decrease in the levels of yellow-brown gas lingering over the country in January and February compared to the same time last year. 

Nitrogen dioxide is emitted from power plants, industrial facilities, cars and other motor vehicles and can be responsible for various respiratory conditions.

Nasa images show the drastic reduction in pollution over major Chinese cities.

Nasa images show the drastic reduction in pollution over major Chinese cities.


The economic slowdown, which has included the halting of traffic and the shutdown of major industrial factories, has likely resulted in cleaner air for much of the country.

NASA scientists said that the drop was most starkly visible over the city of Wuhan, where the outbreak originated. 

“This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop off over such a wide area for a specific event,” Fei Liu, an air quality researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement.

NASA noted that Lunar New Year celebrations usually lead to a decrease in nitrogen dioxide levels over major cities as much of the country returned to their family’s villages, but that levels usually increased again after the celebrations had ended.

“This year, the reduction rate is more significant than in past years and it has lasted longer,” Ms Liu said.

“I am not surprised because many cities nationwide have taken measures to minimise spread of the virus.”

Chinese political expert Graham Smith from the Australian National University said the images were “shocking”, but “not surprising”.

“This is not something completely unexpected. When you have an economic downturn, one of the first things you can track is the level of air pollution,” he told SBS News.

“In many ways they are enjoying the best air that Wuhan has enjoyed for decades.”

He said while it was easy to point the blame for bad air pollution on China, global consumers such as those in Australia were just as responsible.

“It’s not as simple as blaming China because they are a part of a global economy. We choose to locate our factories in these places, so we are just as responsible for the pollution as they are,” Mr Smith said.