Is air quality in China a social problem?

by ChinaPower.csis

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.

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.

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. 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.

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. Read more…


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