In a new study, the Chinese University of Hong Kong researched the impact of air pollution on public health and crop yields. The report has been published in the scientific journal “Environmental Research Letters,” as a part of a three-year action plan for “winning the war for blue skies” for 2018 to 2020.
The team analyzed data from ground-level ozone (O3) and fine respirable particulate (PM2.5) from 6 sectors of the economy – industrial, commercial, residential, agriculture, power generation, ground transport and “others,” such as aviation and fires.
The results are frightening: on average, the two pollutants were responsible for the premature death of 1.1 to 1.6 million people. The economic expenses are also huge, around 20 million tonnes of rice, wheat, maize and soybean are lost by exposure to ozone each year. Because of public health damage, absences from work, crop losses and the like, China suffers staggering losses of approximately 267 billion yuan each year, which is equivalent to about 34,000,000,000 Euros, not including the losses from pollution-related forgone tourism.
But what are the reasons for the high amount of air pollution in China? Why is it such a greater issue here than in the rest of the world? The main pollutant contributor is industrialization, and the second largest contributor is the residential and commercial sector, thanks to their reliance on the burning of dirty coal for power. However, in some major cities, road vehicles overtook the residential and commercial sectors as the second biggest source.
China possesses world`s second-largest economy and the largest military. Their economy is growing incredibly fast; in the last 30 years, the Chinese economy – and the wealth of the Chinese population – has been grown faster than any other country on earth ever before. Pollution is only one of the prices the population must pay for this upswing.
What is the Chinese government doing in response to this huge problem? Contrary to popular belief, with the implementation of new, hard hitting, and extensive green policies, the Chinese Government is cracking down on pollution like never before.
The government has the very difficult task of walking the line between reducing pollution and encouraging economic growth. The measures against pollution start with the use of cars in major cities; on every weekday every number plate that starts with a certain daily letter is forbidden to drive. In some other big cities, the number of bicycles used has grown so fast that rental depots can be found on almost every block. These efforts have reached higher levels; more and more, major cities like Beijing are moving their biggest companies out of the city to reduce industrial pollution near residential and commercial areas. I’ve heard of such stories from friends of mine. China has become the global leader in the electric-vehicle industry since 2015, even larger than that of the USA, and is aiming for 7 million annual sales by 2025. China also produces more than two-thirds of the world’s solar panels, which is not a coincidence. As well as traditional renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, China is exploring the frontier of clean energy technologies, hydrogen as an alternative to coal being one such example. The government even created a special police force concerning the lowering of the air pollution, tasked with closing polluting factories. However, as many coal, steel and aluminium factories are shut down, the commodity prices continue to rise – one of the economic costs of tackling pollution.
Green efforts have been very effective so far; the high-tech industry with electric cars and solar panels is encouraging GDP growth while simultaneously causing the air pollution problem to slowly shrink, but we will have to wait a couple of years to see how such an ambitious mission fares in the long run.
I think that the government is handling the problem as best as they can. They are not interfering too much, and have so far avoided economic problems as best as they could, especially considering that China’s current, greatest asset is likely their recent economic explosion. However, simply managing pollution may not be good enough; if this issue is not resolved soon, the satisfaction of the population may drop very fast, and the potentially disastrous economic costs like lost productivity and prices of healthcare would rapidly inflate.
Becoming a world tech superpower while at the same time reducing the air pollution in China – if that isn’t a challenging goal, I really do not know what is.
Beijing, CN – 19.12.2018
Hannes Michael Steinle