Air pollution contributes to millions of premature deaths around the world each year. In China, rapid industrialization has wrought intense levels of air pollution that present serious social, economic, and political problems. China’s leaders have responded with measures designed to improve air quality, but they face significant challenges in balancing economic growth with environmental and social welfare.
Air quality is typically reported using an Air Quality Index (AQI), a metric for assessing how healthy air is in a specific location. Many countries have their own index. 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, with higher AQI values representing worse air quality.
China Air Quality Index
AQI values are derived from daily PM2.5 concentration averages calculated from the hourly recorded values from the US Embassy in Beijing.
The Sources of China’s Air Pollution
Countries often face a difficult choice between promoting unfettered economic growth and the resulting costs to public and environmental welfare. This is not a recent phenomenon. In response to the 1952 “Great Smog of London,” which killed an estimated 4,000 people, the UK introduced the Clean Air Act of 1956 to restrict emissions. In the United States, the EPA introduced the Clean Air Act in 1963, with subsequent amendments in 1970, 1977 and 1990. Both measures contributed to immediate reductions in pollution, but they also inflicted economic costs, including the loss of jobs.
The tradeoffs between environmental protection and economic growth arguably present a greater challenge for developing countries, as their economic development often depends on industrial output, urbanization, and motorization – all of which can greatly increase pollution. For China, rapid economic growth has lifted millions of people out of poverty, but it has also resulted in immense levels of environmental degradation.
Much of China’s growth has been powered by coal – a cheap, but highly polluting, source of energy. In 1990, 76.2 percent of all energy consumed in China was generated by coal. That figure has fallen steadily over the past three decades, but coal still accounted for 57.7 percent of China’s energy consumption in 2019. In India, a coal-dependent country with the world’s second-largest population after China, coal burning generated 46.8 percent of the energy consumed in 2018 – 2019. Together, the two countries account for 36 percent of the global population in 2019, but 63.5 percent of world coal consumption.
Electricity generation has historically been the main source of China’s air pollution. However, large coal-powered industries, which are key drivers of China’s economic development, have increasingly contributed to China’s air pollution problems. By 2017, the steel industry displaced electricity generation as China’s biggest polluter.
The use of coal by households also significantly contributes to air pollution, especially in rural areas where many homes rely on it and other solid fuels (such as wood) for heating and cooking. Households account for only 1.9 percent of China’s total coal use in 2018, but they have a disproportionately large impact on air pollution because the emissions are less filtered.
Other sources contribute significantly to China’s air pollution. With the total number of vehicles in China reaching 360 million in 2020, they are now a major culprit. This is particularly true in larger cities, where the concentration of exhaust from vehicles is much higher. According to China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment, vehicle emissions were to blame for about 45 percent of Beijing’s air pollution in 2018, and nearly 30 percent of the air pollution in Shanghai. Similarly, in one of Pakistan’s most heavily polluted cities, Lahore, vehicle emissions caused 43 percent of the city’s smog in 2019.
Air pollution tends to be localized due to topography, weather patterns, and proximity to polluting industries. Beijing’s air pollution, for example, is often exacerbated by the confluence of these factors. To the south and east of Beijing is a large concentration of coal-burning industries. Pollutants from factories in this area are often carried by winds into Beijing and trapped there by mountains to the city’s north and west.
The Costs of China’s Air Pollution
It is only in recent decades that the full health implications of air pollution have become clear. Since 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO) has tracked air quality to measure its effect on heart disease, strokes, lung cancer, and respiratory illnesses. It has also published air quality guidelines on what is considered an unhealthy exposure to various pollutants.
The WHO Air Quality Guidelines focus on four main pollutants: particulate matter (PM), ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and sulfur dioxide (SO2). Particulate matter includes both PM2.5 (particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter) and PM10 (particles between 2.5 and 10 microns in diameter). Of these pollutants, PM2.5 presents the greatest danger to human health, as these small particles can penetrate deep into lungs and enter the bloodstream. The WHO’s guidelines stipulate that annual mean PM2.5 should not exceed 10 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3).
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. 1
Particulate matter concentrations in China far exceed WHO recommended levels, and they leave China with AQI values far above what the EPA considers satisfactory. According to AirNow, the city of Shenyang experienced an average PM2.5 concentration of 41 μg/m3 in 2020 – four times higher than the WHO guidelines recommend. This concentration of PM2.5 corresponds with an AQI of 115, which is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups.
The PM2.5 concentration in Beijing was slightly lower at 38.7 μg/m3 in 2020, leaving the city with an average AQI of nearly 109. However, air quality can vary greatly over the course of a year. Beijing’s average AQI in February 2020, for example, reached 155, while it was a moderate 73 in September. Daily AQI averages can climb to much higher levels. Beijing’s peak average daily AQI in 2020 reached 262, which the EPA considers very unhealthy.
High levels of air pollution take a major toll on public health. A study by the Health Effects Institute found that unhealthy levels of PM2.5 led to roughly 1.42 million premature deaths in China in 2019. Household air pollution from burning solid fuels resulted in an additional 363,000 deaths that year. A joint 2016 study by the Health Effects Institute and Tsinghua University found that coal-generated pollution was the most important contributor to ambient PM2.5 pollution in China, with premature deaths resulting from coal-burning totaling 366,000 in 2013.
The Global Impacts of Air Pollution
The Global Impacts of Air Pollution
Many Chinese citizens have expressed frustration with the public health hazard posed by air pollution. 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 being censored.
Air pollution also carries economic costs. According to a 2018 report by Greenpeace and the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, air pollution led to economic costs as high as 6.6 percent of China’s GDP. Another 2018 study from the Chinese University of Hong Kong estimates that RMB 267 billion ($38 billion) of revenue is lost yearly due to early deaths and lost food production as a result of air pollution.
Chinese citizens have also participated in numerous protests to express their complaints about air quality. In 2016, protests broke out in Chengdu in response to heavy smog, and in 2017 residents in Daqing protested plans to build an aluminum plant over concerns that it would add to local air pollution. More recently, days-long protests broke out in 2019 in Wuhan after the announcement of plans to construct a waste-to-energy plant, which local residents feared would blanket the areas in toxic pollution.
Around 2013 I would say was the tipping point when it became clear that China was choking on its own high speed and unbalanced development, when the air pollution got so bad that China recognized that it had to take action.
China is not alone in struggling with air quality. As of 2018, the average concentration levels of particulate matter in India were greater than in China. New Delhi experienced an average AQI of 154 in 2020, a level considered unhealthy even in short doses. India suffered 1.67 million air pollution-related deaths in 2019, while China suffered 1.85. The two countries account for half of the world’s total deaths caused by air pollution. Bangladesh also faces extremely high levels of air pollution. Dhaka saw an unhealthy average AQI of 147 in 2020.
Like China, these countries face steep economic costs stemming from air pollution. According to Greenpeace and CREA’s 2018 report, India’s air pollution-related economic costs reached 5.4 percent of its GDP. Bangladesh loses an estimated $6.5 billion every year as a result of pollution and environmental degradation in urban areas.
China’s Efforts to Reduce Air Pollution
In response to mounting social and political problems, China’s leaders have undertaken a range of efforts to reduce air pollution. President Xi Jinping has made fighting pollution one of his top priorities, labelling it as one of China’s “three tough battles,” along with reducing poverty and improving financial stability.
China has implemented several important policies to fight pollution. The 2013 Airborne Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan recognized coal as a key driver of air pollution and placed caps on its consumption. In November 2016, China released multiple sub-plans under the Thirteenth Five Year Plan framework that set goals for lowering PM2.5 levels in China’s 10 worst-affected cities by 18 percent and reducing coal’s share of total energy consumption to 58 percent by 2020. In November 2020, the Central Committee of the Communist Party recommended strengthening the regulation of particulate matter and ozone in order to “essentially eliminate” heavy pollution during the period of the Fourteenth Five-Year Plan.
The Chinese government has taken concrete steps to limit air pollution stemming from coal burning. It is retiring some older, less efficient coal plants and replacing them with “ultra-supercritical facilities” that are designed to produce more energy with less coal. China’s 100 most efficient coal plants consume an average of 286 grams of coal equivalent (gce) per kilowatt of power produced. This is far more efficient than Nevertheless, the US only consumes about one-sixth the amount of coal that China uses.
Additionally, China has poured resources into renewable technology. In January 2017, China pledged to spend RMB2.5 trillion ($367 billion) on renewable power generation such as solar, wind, hydroelectric, and nuclear energy through 2020. Yet Chinese investments in clean energy fell by 8 percent in 2019 compared to the previous year, bringing into question China’s commitment to funding renewable energies.
While energy consumption is a major driver of pollution in China, its per capita of use energy still lags developed countries. Learn more about other relevant development statistics on China.
Despite plans to reduce coal consumption, China is nevertheless rapidly expanding its capacity to generate coal-powered electricity with the construction of new power plants. In both 2017 and 2018, the amount of coal consumed by China increased, after having declined in previous years. In a December 2020 report, the International Energy Agency forecasted a rebound in global coal demand to 2.6 percent in 2021, led by China, together with India and Southeast Asia. As a result, China’s coal-powered industries will continue to be a major source of pollution and carbon emissions.
Besides targeting large industries, regulators in China are also working to reduce other sources of air pollution. Key among these is vehicle emissions. In July 2019, more than a dozen heavily populated areas – including Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Hebei province – began enforcing the sixth stage of motor vehicle emissions standards. The “China VI” standards, as they are known, require vehicles to have better filtering systems for trapping exhaust gases. The implementation began on July 1, 2020.
In some of China’s most heavily polluted provinces, the government is targeting the burning of solid fuels by households. In October 2018, the government announced a plan to replace coal-burning heaters with natural gas and electric heating systems in nearly 1.2 million homes across 11 cities. However, facing a short supply of natural gas, in July 2019, the National Energy Administration reversed the policy and proposed a heating plan that adapts to different local conditions.
The Chinese government undertook similar efforts in the fall and winter of 2017, but it struggled to properly implement the new policies. Coal stoves were removed from many homes before new furnaces were installed, leaving families without heat during the winter. Around the same time, a school in Hebei drew national attention when its students were seen attending class outdoors, as the school lacked indoor heating that met regulations. These events provoked public outrage and prompted the government to take measures to avoid fuel shortages and heating disruptions in subsequent winters.
China could play a major part in global efforts to curb emissions. In 2017, China became the leading global source of clean energy investments. That same year, China established the world’s largest carbon trading market. The trading scheme regulates about 3 billion tons (or about 30 percent) of China’s carbon emissions, making it nearly twice the size of the European Union’s emissions trading scheme.
Beijing is also ostensibly incorporating “green” strategies into its flagship foreign policy effort, the Belt and Road Initiative. However, a study by the World Resources Institute found that between 2014 and 2017, about 95 percent of cross-border energy investments by Chinese state-owned enterprises were in fossil fuels. Overseas energy investments by major Chinese banks and other institutions were also largely geared towards fossil fuels during this period. These investments could lock recipient countries into traditional, high-polluting energy sources for decades.
China itself is funding about a quarter of the coal plants that are being built around the world.
More broadly, China made several significant commitments to addressing global climate change through the 2015 Paris Agreement. As part of the agreement, China committed to peaking its carbon emissions by 2030 and increasing the share of non-fossil fuels used to 20 percent of total consumption within the same timeframe. Moreover, in September 2020, President Xi Jingping announced at the UN general assembly that China aims to be carbon neutral by 2060. Until President Joe Biden’s January 2021 decision to rejoin the Paris Agreement, China was portrayed as the international leader in fighting against climate change after the US withdrew from the treaty in 2017.
It remains unclear whether China will meet its global climate commitments or fully address its air pollution problems at home. Both require Beijing to make tradeoffs between economic growth and its citizens’ social and environmental well-being. For 2021, the Chinese government has set air quality targets at a slightly higher level than 2020’s average PM2.5 level. A less demanding goal would ease up pressure on industries to produce less or to implement costly measures that reduce pollution – both would hinder Chinese economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. However, forgoing an opportunity to enforce stricter standards means that China is further away from achieving a healthy environment for its citizenry.