The Price of Fresh Air

A recent study released by the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change quantifies the damage that has caused to the Chinese economy:

To observe how changes in pollutants, and their associated health impacts, have historically affected the Chinese economy, the MIT researchers modeled the number of cases of health incidences caused by air pollution — such as restricted-activity days, respiratory hospital admissions and asthma attacks, to name a few examples — given a pollution level and the number of people exposed. Then the model calculated the summed costs of these incidences — i.e., payments for health services and medicine, loss of labor and productivity from time off work, loss of leisure time needed for healing — to estimate the total change in available labor supply.

The study focused on two major air pollutants: particulate matter and ozone. Levels of particulate matter, which causes respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and accounts for a large fraction of damage to human health, are extremely high in China. In the 1980s, particulate matter concentrations were at least 10-16 times higher than the World Health Organization’s annual guidelines. Even in 2005, after significant improvements in Chinese air quality, concentrations were still about five times higher than the guidelines.

China has only recently begun monitoring levels of the second air pollutant, ozone. Chinese ozone data does not exist between 1970 and 2005, the period considered in this study. In fact, most air pollution studies of China omit the pollutant completely due to lack of data. However, the MIT study incorporates historical ozone levels over the past three decades as simulated by GEOS-Chem (a chemical transport model) and MIT’s Integrated Global Systems Model, thus significantly improving on previous studies of pollution damage.

The researchers found that, although the magnitude of air pollution in China decreased over the three decades, damages associated with the pollutants created a substantial burden on the Chinese economy. “The results clearly indicate that ozone and particulate matter have substantially impacted the Chinese economy over the past 30 years,” Selin says.


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