China’s Air Problem Is Worse Than You Think

A new study finds that air pollution kills 4,000 people per day in China.

A smoggy day in Wujiaqu (Reuters)

Over the past 10 years of living in and then writing about China, I’ve struck these big three recurring themes:

  • That it is impressive and notable for the U.S. and China to have managed relations as well as they have over the past 35-plus years, considering the very deep differences between them and the very high stakes for the world; and that it is important for them to keep doing so.

  • That Americans should try to master the mental balancing act of taking China seriously, without being afraid of it. This goes against the nature of big, continental, inward-looking countries like the United States (or China, Russia, India), which tend to take outsiders seriously only when feeling menaced by them. But it’s an important challenge for Americans to meet.
    The need to take China seriously is obvious because of its scale and impact. The reason not to be afraid of it is that whatever problems the U.S. (or Europe or Japan or other developed countries) might have, China has vastly more. Also, its problems are much harder to solve, simultaneously more urgent and more deeply chronic, and with less margin for error. And I’m not even talking about the stock market / currency disruptions in China that dominate the news now, or the catastrophic explosion in Tianjin.

  • Among these problems, the worst (in my view) is China’s all fronts-environmental crisis. The Chinese government is working very, very hard to deal with its air, water, land, food-supply, and other sustainability challenges. So it’s a race between how hard the country is trying and how dire the situation is.

On this last front, a study out just now from Berkeley Earth in California, written by Robert Rohde and Richard Muller, deserves attention. It concludes that air pollution in China, familiar to everyone, in fact does more damage than is generally recognized. The study finds that as a result of this pollution, some 1.6 million Chinese people per year, or more dramatically well over 4,000 per day, are dying prematurely.

The magenta-colored zones, with average year-round pollution levels classified as “unhealthy” by the U.S. EPA and international standards, cover most of China’s major cities, where many hundreds of millions of people live. (Berkeley Earth)

The overview is here, and the scientific paper itself is here, full of charts and diagrams. The raw statistics behind their findings are available here. Conceptually such news is familiar, but the detail in the report is significant. The site is well laid-out and informative, and I encourage readers anywhere, but especially in China, to explore it.