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Blue skies return to China as coronavirus cuts coal consumption

February air pollution readings drop to 6-year low in many cities

View of Shanghai, Feb. 22. (Photo by Yusho Cho)

SHANGHAI -- The slow recovery of Chinese industrial activity from the coronavirus outbreak has prolonged a seasonal drop in coal usage by power companies, contributing to an unexpected return of blue skies in such polluted cities as Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Six major Chinese electricity companies, including China Huaneng Group and China Datang, are burning a total of about 400,000 tons of coal daily almost a month after the end of the Lunar New Year holiday. This is down by a third from the average daily consumption five years earlier, after accounting for the shift in holiday timing.

China relies on coal for about 60% of its power generation. Coal consumption typically starts to decline three weeks before the Lunar New Year, returning to its peak around half a month after the weeklong break.

That V-shaped recovery has not happened this year, owing mainly to the virus bringing much of China's economy to a standstill for weeks after the holiday.

But this trend has had the positive effect of improving the air pollution that has plagued the country. Government data shows average concentrations of PM2.5 fine particulate matter dropping to their lowest February levels since 2014 in many cities.

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