The human and fiscal cost of air pollution is irrefutable. Since 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO) has tracked air quality to measure its effect on heart disease, strokes, lung cancer, and other respiratory illnesses. China and India each had 1.1 million air pollution-related deaths in 2015, accounting for half of the world’s total air pollution deaths that year.
Chinese leaders face the difficult choice of prioritizing either economic growth or environmental and social welfare. For the past several years, Beijing has a made a concerted effort to reduce high concentrations of air pollution across China.
An Air Quality Index (AQI) is a measure for reporting the safety level of air in a specific location. The AQI provided by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses “breakpoints” that correspond to a defined pollution concentration. Breakpoints are scaled between 0 and 500.
China Air Quality Index
AQI values are derived from daily PM2.5 concentration averages calculated from the hourly recorded values from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. 1
How does air quality in China compare with other countries?
Countries with a developed or developing industrial sector often face a tradeoff between rapid economic growth – without the constraints of environmental regulations – or public and environmental welfare measures. This challenge is not a recent phenomenon. Advanced economies, like the UK and Sweden, 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.
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.2 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.3
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
Emerging markets face the same cost-benefit tradeoffs as wealthier countries. India makes the most obvious point of comparison for China, as both are large developing countries. As of 2015, the average concentration levels of particulate matter in India are greater than they are in China. While 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 period.
According to a 2016 World Bank report, India’s air pollution-related welfare and productivity costs reached 8.5 percent of its GDP in 2013. A 2017 Greenpeace report estimated that there are 1.2 million air pollution-based deaths per year in India. To help curb the pollution problem, the Indian government has enacted a number of measures ranging from a graded air quality rating response system to mandating emission-reducing catalytic converters for motor vehicles.
Each 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.
China has faced similar tradeoffs as it has developed. Its economic growth, largely reliant on coal energy, has lifted millions of people out of poverty, but it has also led to rapid environmental degradation and smog-covered cities. Although China began its efforts to protect the environment by hosting the nation’s first conference on environment protection in 1973, it was not until the early 2010s that Beijing began taking serious steps to reduce coal consumption. The introduction of the Airborne Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan in 2013 not only recognized coal as a driver for air pollution, but also placed caps on coal consumption.
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.
Along the Beijing-to-Shanghai corridor, 10 percent of the land area has been associated with 34 percent of China’s PM2.5 emissions.
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. China’s annual PM2.5 levels are consistently five times higher on average than the advised WHO limit of 10 micrograms per cubic meter, which can lead to increased likelihood of respiratory issues in sensitive individuals. Researchers with the Berkeley Earth Project found that, over a four-month period in mid-2014, around 92 percent of China’s population was exposed to more than 120 hours of unhealthy air.
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 China in 2007. This loss was equivalent to 1.34 percent of real GDP and lowered total household disposable income by $90 billion. According to a 2015 report by RAND, health problems and lost labor productivity due to air pollution reached 6.5 percent of China’s GDP per year between 2000 and 2010.4
Each data point represents the AQI value in terms of PM2.5 concentrations. AQI values are daily averages calculated from the hourly recorded values from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. 5
Many Chinese citizens 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. In March 2015, 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 the demand for air quality products, including air filters and face masks. Companies such as 3M have seen a boom in air purification sales on the Chinese market since 2013. Recently this demand has pivoted toward high-end air purification units rather than cheaper alternatives. This trend has also fostered a fake goods market. In December 2015, 120,000 counterfeit masks were seized by Shanghai authorities in a raid. These masks offered no air purification, prompting public concerns over the authenticity of air quality products on the market.
China has pursued other creative solutions to combat its air quality issues. The 7-meter tall “Smog Free Tower” in Beijing is one such example. The sleek air purifier was built in Beijing in 2016 by Dutch designers with the support of China’s central government. More recently, a 328 feet tall air purifier, named the “World’s Biggest Air Purifier,” was constructed in Xian in 2017. After its completion, air quality around the city witnessed marked improvements. During heavy periods of pollution, PM2.5 levels on average decreased by 15 percent.
What’s contributing to China’s air pollution?
To fuel its economic development, China has relied heavily on coal to generate electricity, power industrialization, and heat homes, which has significantly contributed to its air-pollution problem. In earlier years, China used coal in a dirty and inefficient manner, with the use of “subcritical” coal plants that contribute to high levels of airborne pollutants. Emissions from coal-powered industries, such as steel and cement production, have contributed roughly 40 percent of the PM2.5 pollution in China. Despite new measures to pivot the country’s energy use away from coal, China is still the world’s largest consumer of coal, which represents 60 percent of its total energy consumption.
The enormous quantity of coal consumed in China, combined with inefficient burning practices, has led to significant health consequences. A joint study by the Health Effects Institute and Tsinghua University discovered that coal-generated pollution was the most important contributor to ambient PM2.5 pollution, with premature deaths resulting from coal-burning totaling 366,000 in 2013. As a result, industrial pollution has come to symbolize the tradeoff between social welfare and economic development.
In recent years, the US 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 and coal washing. In August 2015, the US 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 greenhouse gases produced from by coal burning.
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
China has made some strides toward increasing the efficiency of its power generation. It is currently retiring older, less efficient plants and replacing them with “ultra-supercritical facilities,” which are designed to produce more energy with less coal usage. Currently, 90 out of the top 100 coal-fire power facilities in China are ultra-supercritical plants. Use of advanced technology has enabled China to use about 286 grams of coal equivalent (gce) per kilowatt of power produced, significantly less than that of the US (375 gce).
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 cyclical nature of air pollution – particularly harmful during winter when PM2.5 concentrations are three times higher – illustrates the level to which 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 road population of more than 300 million drivers are an additional source of pollution. Motor vehicle exhaust has changed the composition of urban air pollution. In 2000, 45-60 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions and 85 percent of carbon monoxide emissions were produced by motor vehicles.
Additionally, 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. Similarly, 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.
How is China addressing air pollution?
Chinese leaders have enacted a series of noteworthy measures to address the country’s pollution problem. In November 2016, China released the Thirteenth 5-Year Plan, which outlined the key environmental objectives. These include a continuing effort to reduce PM2.5 in China’s ten worst-affected cities, including Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei by 18 percent and reducing coal production by 140 million tons by 2020. In his speech at the 19th Party Congress in 2017, President Xi Jinping emphasized that China will “continue its campaign to prevent and control air pollution to make our skies blue again.”
Over 30 cities have committed to reducing PM2.5 particles by 15 to 40 percent over the winter of 2017 compared to 2016.
Efforts designed to curb pollution also include the February 2017 directive to cancel 103 planned or half-constructed coal-fired power plants. In August 2017, the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) published a 143-page “action plan” to cut PM2.5 concentrations by at least 15 percent. In addition to setting targets for PM2.5 reduction, the action plan called for stronger air quality law enforcement through stricter pollution monitoring and penalties.
A report by McKinsey notes that over 30 cities committed to reducing PM2.5 particles by 15 to 40 percent over the winter of 2017 compared to 2016. Other plans to mitigate air pollution include paying industries to upgrade to pollution-reduction equipment, restricting the use of older vehicles, and providing substitutes for coal burning in rural areas. On a national level, China closed 40 percent of all its factories – major contributors to pollution – to curb emissions in 2017. As a result, the heavily polluted city of Linfen saw a 50 percent reduction in PM2.5 levels.
While the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, according to the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, experienced a 25 percent drop in PM2.5 levels in the winter of 2017-2018, state controls on polluting industries, such as steel production, are expected to loosen in the face of a slowing economy. The government announced in September 2018 that the blanket bans that contributed to significantly cleaner air during the previous winter would be replaced by a more nuanced approach. The shift will enable local authorities to set their own pollution reduction targets that are subject to review by the central government.
Additionally, China has looked to foster the shift away from coal and toward renewable energy with domestic investments. China pledged in January of 2017 to spend $367 billion in renewable power generation such as solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear energy by 2020. According to the International Energy Agency, coal will account for less than 40 percent of China’s power needs by 2040, compared to the current 70 percent.
China’s emissions trading market is now the world’s largest, and regulates 30 percent (3 billion tons) of China’s carbon emissions.
China is also adopting an increasingly global profile in its transition toward renewable energy. According to a report by the Institute for Energy, Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative has spearheaded China’s spending on clean energy projects across the globe, which has jumped from $32 billion in 2016 to $44 billion in 2017. China has since surpassed Germany as the number one exporter of environmental goods and services.
Beijing is keen on continuing its cooperation with the US to reduce emissions. China and the US signed an agreement in November 2014 in which China pledged to cap carbon emissions by 2030. In a US-China agreement in September 2015, China announced plans for a cap-and-trade emissions marketplace for power generation, steel, and cement industries. This marketplace was tested with pilot programs in seven cities, including Beijing, before its launch in December 2017. China’s emissions trading market is now the world’s largest, and regulates 30 percent (3 billion tons) of China’s carbon emissions.
China’s MEP also visited the US EPA’s National Enforcement Investigation Center in May 2017 to prepare for the creation of a Chinese national environmental enforcement support agency. This collaboration continued even after President Trump’s announcement that the US would withdraw from the Paris Agreement. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, during President Trump’s visit to China in 2017, Presidents Trump and Xi signed the US-China Collaboration Agreement, which included plans for future energy and environmental protection cooperation between both countries.
- Monthly Precipitation data for Shenyang, Chengdu, and Guangzhou are taken from their perspective provinces: Liaoning, Sichuan, and Guangdong.
- J. Lelieveld, J. S. Evans, M. Fnais, D. Giannadaki, and A. Pozzer, “The Contribution of Outdoor Air Pollution Sources to Premature Mortality on a Global Scale,” Nature, Vol. 525, Issue 7569, September 2015.
- Michael Greenstone, “The Impacts of Environmental Regulation on Industrial Activity: Evidence from the 1970 and 1977 Clean Air Act Amendments and the Census of Manufactures,” Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 100, No. 6 (2002): 1175–76.
- Su-Mei Chen and Ling-Yun He, “Welfare Loss of China’s Air Pollution: How to Make Personal Vehicle Transportation Policy,” China Economic Review, Vol. 31 (Beijing: Chinese Economists Society, 2014), 106.
- On 12/25/2015, the AQI exceeded 500. According to the U.S. Embassy, AQI was valued at 537.