Research shows China’s war on pollution will give some people an extra five years of life

Performance artist Kong Ning raising awareness of air pollution in Beijing.
Performance artist Kong Ning raising awareness of air pollution in Beijing.
Image: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
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In 2014, China’s premier Li Keqiang declared war on air pollution. With many cities routinely experiencing an ”airpocalypse,” it was long overdue. At one point in 2013, a children’s hospital in Beijing was treating 7,000-plus patients a day for respiratory ailments. Researchers found that people’s lifespans could be shortened by more than five years in areas that relied heavily on coal, a major contributor of deadly air pollutants.

Four years later, China has made significant progress on fighting air pollution.

The nation’s air quality has improved so significantly in recent years that citizens can expect to see their lifespan increase by 2.4 years (pdf, p. 2) relative to 2013 levels, according to a report published yesterday (March 12) by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago.

Among the top 10 most polluted cities in China, Xingtai in the northern Hebei province saw the most “lifespan gains,” increasing by as much as five years and five months. Concentrations of small, breathable particles known as PM2.5 fell more than 50% in Xingtai from 2013 to 2017, according to the research. In Beijing, PM2.5 levels fell by more than 30% in the same period, translating to more than 20 million residents living about 3.3 years longer.

China’s northern cities have been some of its most polluted in part due to the country’s half-century-old Huai River Policy, under which the government since the 1950s has provided subsidized coal (pdf) for indoor heating to homes north of the river. That reduced lifespans by as much as 3.1 years due to respiratory diseases caused by particulate matter, according to research published last September by the US-based Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

There are questions as to whether China can sustain its environmental progress while faced with the need for economic growth, notes Michael Greenstone, director of the Energy Policy Institute, in the New York Times (paywall). Its crucial for China to find more market-driven forces, he argues, such as the carbon-trading market, instead of relying on government fiats.

The progress on air pollution has often come at a cost in China. Last October the country made an aggressive push to restrict coal usage in 30 cities covered by state-subsidized heating programs, while encouraging a switch natural gas. But many residents were left shivering over the winter due to a gas shortage and other hiccups.

Meanwhile, despite the recent progress, many Chinese cities still fail to meet China’s own safety standards for PM2.5 levels, and are nowhere near achieving the levels recommended by the World Health Organization.