Is air quality in China a social problem?
The human and fiscal cost of air pollution is irrefutable. After identifying air pollution as carcinogenic in 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO) has tracked air quality to measure its effect on stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and other respiratory illnesses. Recent research provides estimates of premature deaths related to air pollution. Estimates show that about 1.81 million premature deaths in 2010 could be attributed to air pollution in the Asia-Pacific, over half of the 3.3 million deaths caused by air pollution worldwide. In China, University of California at Berkeley physicists recently estimated that air pollution leads to 1.6 million annual premature deaths. Chinese leaders face the difficult choice of prioritizing economic growth or environmental and social welfare, which compromises its ability to cultivate its national power. Additionally, China’s air-quality concerns have harmed China’s international image, adversely affecting Chinese soft power. In this question, we compare pollution levels with other countries, assess the social consequences of China’s air pollution, and explain what generates China’s pollution.

An Air Quality Index (AQI) is an indicator for reporting the safety level of air in a specific location. The AQI used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is scaled between 0 and 500 with “breakpoints” (e.g. 0, 50, 100, 150,…500) that correspond to a defined pollution concentration. The color coding in the below graphic corresponds to EPA standards.

AQI values are derived from daily PM 2.5 concentration averages calculated from the hourly recorded values from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.


How does air quality in China compare with other countries?

Countries with a developing or developed industrial sector must often face the tradeoff between the perceived economic limitations of environmental regulation, and environmental and public welfare. The challenge is not a recent phenomenon. Advanced economies, like the United Kingdom and United States, continue to work toward environmental protection while supporting their economic and industrial sectors. The challenge arguably has greater repercussions for developing countries, as their economic development often depends on industrial output.

A Conversation With Barbara Finamore


0:08 - Is air pollution endemic to industrialization? Is it possible for countries to industrialize without polluting?

1:19 - Is public concern in China over air quality a problem for the Chinese government?

2:42 - Has the Chinese government been forthcoming with information on air pollution levels?

3:58 - Would legislation designed to curb China’s air pollution slow the Chinese economy?

6:20 - Has air pollution had a negative effect on how China is viewed in other countries?

Most advanced economies began to regulate air pollution after de-industrialization was already underway. This period coincided with better public awareness of the health consequences of pollution. After the 1952 “Great Smog of London” was estimated to have killed at least 4,000 people, the UK introduced the Clean Air Act of 1956 to restrict emissions. Due to the lack of consistent data, the extent to which the act directly contributed to air-quality improvements is unknown, but the post-1960 difference was dramatic; urban concentrations of smoke fell by 80 percent and sulfur dioxide by 70 percent within 20 years.


Public concern about air quality is an enormous problem for the Chinese government and it has only become so in recent years as the public gained more information.
Barbara Finamore


In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency introduced the Clean Air Act in 1970, with subsequent amendments in 1977 and 1990. The Clean Air Act established national air-quality standards, and has been associated with reductions in sulfur dioxide and other pollutants, leading to an immediate reduction in infant mortality rates. In 1972, an estimated 1,300 infants survived as a consequence of the Clean Air Act. Although the U.S. public has benefited from this regulation, economic losses were incurred during this transition. In the 15 years following the 1970 and 1977 Clean Air Act amendments, it is estimated that American counties found in violation of regulation lost about 590,000 jobs, $37 billion in capital goods, and $75 billion in production.

Beijing Air Quality Index 2015Each data point represents the daily AQI value and pollutant type recorded by the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP). The AQI value is determined by the pollutant with the highest index on a given day.

Emerging markets face the same cost-benefit tradeoffs as wealthier countries like the United Kingdom and United States. As both are large, developing countries, India makes the most obvious point of comparison for China. In 2015, the average concentration levels of particulate matter in India surpassed China. Whereas the concentration of PM2.5 decreased by 17 percent in China from 2010 to 2015, pollution levels increased in India by 13 percent during the same time period. Increasing air pollution in India has prompted an urgent governmental response. Since 1996, the Indian Supreme Court ordered 17 “critically polluted” cities to develop a pollution action plan. Recent research illustrates why such actions were necessary. In Mumbai alone, air pollution-related government and personal health expenditures totaled as much as $77.8 billion in 2011. While the Supreme Court Action Plans appeared to have had little success reducing particulate matter or sulfur dioxide levels to date, nitrogen dioxide levels have decreased. Other national regulation in 1995 mandated the use of catalytic converters to reduce emissions levels from motor vehicles. According to studies published in the National Bureau of Economic Research, this technology effectively decreases particulate matter and sulfur dioxide levels.

Air pollution tends to be localized due to topography, weather patterns, and industry location. Along the Beijing-to-Shanghai corridor, where China’s pollution is most concentrated, 10 percent of the land area has been associated with 34 percent of China’s PM2.5 emissions (particle matter 2.5 microns or less in diameter). The American Lung Association has found that counties in southern and central California—including Los Angeles, Fresno-Madera, and Bakersfield—experience the most particle matter and ozone air pollution. The report attributed this phenomenon to this region’s high levels of drought, fires, and burning wood as a heat source. Thus, air-quality regulations must also address industrial and geographic details at the local level.

At the heart of this cost-benefit analysis are the infrastructural, industrial, and household investments necessary to transition to clean energy sources. In the short-term, this investment often compares poorly with cheaper energy alternatives. Most countries grapple with these tradeoffs, and this shared challenge places particular attention on China’s environmental policies.

How can we assess the social consequences of air pollution?

It is only over the past two decades that the full extent of the health implications of air pollution—especially particulate matter—have become understood. WHO has published guidelines outlining safe air quality levels. The guidelines focus on concentrations of fine particulate matter, which can penetrate deep inside the human respiratory system.

In China, particulate matter concentrations far exceeded WHO recommended levels. The WHO Air Quality Guidelines stipulate that a country’s annual mean of fine particulate matter of PM2.5 (particle matter 2.5 microns or less in diameter) should not exceed 10 micrograms per cubic meter, and 20 micrograms per cubic meter for PM10. PM2.5 presents the greatest danger to human health, since it can accumulate deep inside the lungs. Reported PM2.5 levels in China are consistently over 10 times the advised limit. Researchers with the Berkeley Earth Project believe that, over four months of study, around 92 percent of China’s population was exposed to more than 120 hours of unhealthy air.

Beijing Air Quality Index 2015Each data point represents the AQI value in terms of PM 2.5 concentrations. AQI values are daily averages calculated from the hourly recorded values from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. The value above the grey bar is considered beyond the EPA’s AQI scale, and the raw concentration level is reported.

In addition to health risks, ambient air pollution also imposes economic costs on a country. By one estimate, health problems due to air pollution led to the loss of about 133 million workdays in 2007. This loss is equivalent to 1.34 percent of real GDP, and lowered total household disposable income by $90 billion.

Elements of the Chinese public have expressed frustration with this public health hazard. In February 2015, Chinese reporter Chai Jing’s air-pollution documentary, “Under the Dome,” went viral upon its release. Depicting comparative interviews with environmental officials, industrial business managers, and health officials in China and Los Angeles, it received up to 200 million hits on Chinese websites, such as Youku and Tencent, before its removal by Internet censors a week later. In March, Peking University academics released a critical evaluation of pollution levels and current policy responses, drawing on recent U.S. Embassy data. High pollution levels drive demand for air-quality products, including air filters and face masks. The American company 3M anticipated 50–55 percent growth in its air-quality products in the Chinese market in 2014.

What’s contributing to China’s air pollution?

China relies heavily on coal to generate electricity, power industrialization, and heat homes, which has significantly contributed to its air-pollution problem. China burns coal in a dirty and inefficient manner, as China still maintains heavy investments in “subcritical” coal plants, which contribute high levels of airborne pollutants. Beyond coal, increasing car and scooter ownership has also raised carbon dioxide emissions. New environmental policies target industry, yet may fall short in addressing private sources of pollution.

Electricity generation and coal-powered industry, such as steel and cement production, are the largest contributors to air pollution in China. Coal emissions contribute as much as 49 percent of PM2.5 pollution.

China consumed just over 50 percent of global coal in 2014, with industry accounting for more than 65 percent of total energy use. Government subsidies support industrial consumption of coal production. Economists estimate 2011 consumer subsidies at $1.39 billion and producer subsidies at $5.6 billion. These subsidies make coal an attractive energy source. Hebei Province, for example, generates 90 percent of its electricity with coal and relies on coal almost exclusively for industrial manufacturing.

China-World Coal ConsumptionThe enormous quantity of coal consumed in China, combined with inefficient burning practices, has led to significant health consequences. A joint national study conducted by Peking University and Tsinghua University discovered that in 2012, about 670,000 deaths occurred from coal-generated pollution. As a result, industrial pollution has come to symbolize the tradeoff between social welfare and economic development.


In the West there have been many tried and true policies that China is now adapting to its own conditions . . . that make it possible for China to decouple its energy use, its dirty energy use, in particular, from its economic growth.
Barbara Finamore


In recent years, the United States and China have been developing Clean Coal Technologies (CCT) to help reduce emissions. In general, CCTs cover a range of technologies including the use of carbon capture and storage, efficiency improvements at coal-burning power plants, gasification of coal (instead of burning it), and coal washing. In August 2015, the U.S. Department of Energy and China’s National Energy Administration reached an information-sharing agreement, in which both countries will work to refine technologies to capture the greenhouse gases produced from burning coal. Nevertheless, CCTs are expensive and many are still in the early stages of development, limiting their commercial feasibility. It may take years until CCTs become a viable option for reducing the impact of power production from coal on the environment.

Various other policies have attempted to improve air quality, but despite reaching domestic emissions targets, improvements have yet to materialize. In September 2013, the Chinese State Council imposed PM reduction targets in large urban areas around Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, and softer targets for other zones. China and the United States signed an agreement in November 2014 in which China pledged to cap carbon emissions by 2030. In a U.S-China agreement in September 2015, China announced plans for a cap-and-trade emissions marketplace for power generation, steel, and cement industries. This marketplace is currently undergoing pilot programs in seven cities including Beijing, and will be applied across the nation in 2017. China is also investing heavily in renewable sources of energy.

Although industry has been subject to increasing environmental regulation, private household energy consumption also poses an environmental challenge. Households contribute to pollution in two ways: through burning coal for cooking and indoor heating, and through motor vehicle usage. The cyclicality of air pollution—particularly egregious in winter where PM2.5 concentrations are three times higher – illustrates how many buildings and households rely on coal for heat. In 2011, 42 percent of households relied on coal for cooking and 36 percent for winter heat.

China’s more than 300 million vehicle drivers are an additional source of pollution. Motor vehicle exhaust has changed urban air pollution’s composition. In 2000, 45–60 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions and 85 percent of carbon monoxide emissions were produced by motor vehicles. Beijing has developed plans to tighten fuel standards in the city by January 2017. The new rule, called the “Beijing Six”, aims to cut automobile pollution by 15 to 20 percent. The rule will complement China’s new emission standards set to roll out at the beginning of next year.

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