Planet imagery showing the difference between a smoggy day and a day without smog in Beijing © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Tara O’Shea is the Director of Forest Programs at Planet.

Researchers Use Planet Data to Investigate Pollution in Beijing During COVID-19 Crisis


The Satellites for Climate Action initiative— powered by Planet, Bloomberg Philanthropies and the state of California—has helped enable researchers to examine surprising information about power plant emissions.

China has been experiencing the lowest recorded air pollution levels over the last month, due in part to limited transportation, closed factories and construction sites related to the rapidly spreading coronavirus. But some parts of Beijing have still been steeped in smog and air pollution.

Curious as to the cause, researchers at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air used Planet imagery to investigate. They discovered that the majority of steel mills and power plants have continued operation, including a large coal power plant and several steel mills in Tangshan, a city neighboring Beijing with the largest steel industry on the planet. In fact, the blast furnace operating rates in that area matched what they did last year at the same time.

Some steel mills and power plants remain in operation around Beijing, China during the COVID-19 crisis. © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Some steel mills and power plants remain in operation around Beijing, China during the COVID-19 crisis. © 2020, Planet Labs Inc. All Rights Reserved.

“The two largest sources of air pollution in the Beijing region are steel industry and the heating of buildings,” writes Lauri Myllyvirta, one of the Centre’s researchers. Because buildings still need to be warmed, and may require more heat during a lockdown, heating continues. Also, because the costs of shutdown and startup incur a lot of costs, according to Myllyvirta, the steel industry has kept on producing, resulting in record-high stockpiles.

“Planet data helped the Centre shed light on why Beijing experienced serious smog episodes even when much of the country was closed down, and why imports of commodities linked to steel production stayed strong when demand for steel was obviously plummeting,” Myllyvirta says. “Planet imagery provides us a unique visual perspective. The imagery helps tell a clearer story about the current situation than numbers from industry surveys, even when those are available.”

The aim of the Satellites for Climate Action initiative is to use satellite data and technology to inform and accelerate climate protection. This includes space-based monitoring of coal-fired plant operations, utilizing new satellite tech to enhance capabilities surrounding the detection of greenhouse gases, and researching and developing new technologies for the direct detection and measurement of greenhouse gases from space.

According to climate scientists, it’s critical to make changes to our global energy infrastructure and reduce global greenhouse gas emissions as fast as we can. Historically, lack of data has been a barrier to taking stronger climate actions, but Planet imagery could help fill important information gaps.

“Planet’s timely data delivery is helping to provide unprecedented information in an unprecedented time,” says Paris Good. “These sorts of keen insights can allow us to understand the impacts of certain energy sources on our environment and help our leaders make educated plans for the future.”

At Planet, we’re looking forward to continuing to help climate researchers through the Satellites for Climate Action initiative. To find out how to get involved, reach out to

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