Air Pollution Brings Down Life Expectancy In North China

air pollution in China

Research has revealed a five and a half year disparity between the life expectancies of those living in the south of China and north, with the latter living shorter lives thanks to higher levels of air pollution.

The authors of the study, which was published this week, estimate that a total of 2.5 billion years will be wiped from the life expectancies of 500 million people, thanks largely to the region’s overdependence on burning coal to generate heat.

The divide between the north and south, geographically marked by the Huai river, has also been reflected in governmental policy. Between the 1950s and 80s those living north of the river were entitled to free heating in winter time. The fact that this heating has largely been generated by the combustion of coal is thought to be the leading factor contributing to the degradation of the area’s air quality.

The MIT Energy Initiative, who were one of the collaborators working on the project, released a statement saying:

Using data covering an unusually long timespan – from 1981 through 2000 – the researchers found that air pollution [...] was about 55% higher north of the river than south of it [...] Linking the Chinese pollution data to mortality statistics from 1991 to 2000, the researchers found a sharp difference in mortality rates on either side of the border formed by the Huai River. They also found the variation to be attributable to cardiorespiratory illness, and not to other causes of death.

The study used the widely recognised metric of Total Suspended Particles (TSP) to gauge levels of pollution and came to the conclusion that prolonged exposure to air with more than 100 micrograms TSP per cubic meter will bring down life expectancy by an average of three years.

Since the turn of 2013 air pollution has climbed the political agenda in China and is seen by the state as one of the leading causes of social unrest. Outrage was sparked in January when Beijing’s air quality index hit 755, a figure massively in excess of what the World Health Organisation defines as safe.

Green Steve’s Reaction

This is not the first time we have heard about premature deaths in China caused by air pollution – the New York Times gives a nice roundup of previous studies here – but to see such a difference between north and south is concerning.

If anyone needed confirmation that coal power is totally unacceptable in the modern world then they need look no further. Not only is its use generating huge quantities of greenhouse gases, it is directly reducing the number of healthy years lived, not just in China, but across the world.

Aside from the government’s previous policies on free coal generated power during winter (which I have heard still exists in many provinces), we have to take some responsibility here in the west because another significant (and growing) reason for air pollution is China’s huge industrial and manufacturing sectors. Because we demand cheap goods without questioning where they come from or how they are made, we are incentivising the Chinese to keep making things at the cheapest possible cost – something coal power is currently good at enabling.

China is investing heavily in renewable energy and for that we should be thankful but the one of the problems with coal power plants is that they can last decades so we should say no to coal now if we want to be rid of it in the future.

Steve (156 Posts)

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