Coal Pollution May Cost Northern Chinese Billions of Years

Pollution from coal used for winter heating cuts individual life expectancies in northern China by more than five years relative to those in the south, according to a newly published study. The research comes on top of recent findings that outdoor air pollution caused 1.2 million excess deaths in 2010, but the leading figure from the new paper—a total life expectancy loss of more than 2.5 billion years across the 500 million inhabitants of northern China—is even more striking. From Peter Dizikes at the MIT Energy Initiative:

The research is based on long-term data compiled for the first time, and projects that the 500 million Chinese who live north of the Huai River are set to lose an aggregate 2.5 billion years of life expectancy due to the extensive use of coal to power boilers for heating throughout the region. Using a quasi-experimental method, the researchers found very different life-expectancy figures for an otherwise similar population south of the Huai River, where government policies were less supportive of coal-powered heating.

[…] The research stems from a policy China implemented during its era of central planning, prior to 1980. The Chinese government provided free coal for fuel boilers for all people living north of the Huai River, which has long been used as a rough dividing line between north and south in China.

The free-coal policy means people in the north stay warm in winter — but at the cost of notably worse environmental conditions. Using data covering an unusually long timespan — from 1981 through 2000 — the researchers found that air pollution, as measured by total suspended particulates, was about 55 percent higher north of the river than south of it, for a difference of around 184 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter. [Source]

The paper also states that each rise of 100 µg/m³ brings a three-year reduction in life expectancy at birth. One of the authors explained the findings’ significance to The New York Times’ Edward Wong:

“It highlights that in developing countries there’s a trade-off in increasing incomes today and protecting public health and environmental quality,” said the American member of the research team, Michael Greenstone, a professor of environmental economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “And it highlights the fact that the public health costs are larger than we had thought.”

[…] “This adds to the growing mountain of evidence of the heavy cost of China’s pollution,” said Alex L. Wang, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies Chinese environmental policies. “Other studies have shown significant near-term harms, in the form of illness, lost work days and even risks to children beginning in utero. This study suggests that the long-term harms of coal pollution might be worse than we thought.”

Mr. Wang said the new study could “help to build the case for more aggressive environmental regulation” — for example, a previous order by Chinese leaders to shut down coal-fired boilers in some areas could be widened, and faster shutdown times could be required. [Source]

Despite these effects, China’s overall combined life expectancy at birth rose from 69 to 76 between 1990 and 2011, according to the World Health Organization.