It is well known that air pollution is harmful to human health. What is much less known is how it specifically affects people over the long term. China’s Huai River policy, which dispensed free coal to northern China for winter heating, has inadvertently revealed to us that air pollution literally shaves years off our lives. But China has made considerable progress in confronting this pollution.
Air pollution, and especially particulate matter, is one of the greatest threats to human health. It leads to respiratory and heart diseases, strokes, and lung cancer. In many parts of Asia, particulate pollution is five to 10 times higher than what the World Health Organization (WHO) considers safe, making the challenge of air pollution especially acute in the region.
In the past five years, China has made massive strides in improving its environment. Pollution levels are dropping, and the economy continues to grow. What impact has this progress had on people’s health and life expectancy? A unique policy scenario in China presents a rare opportunity to answer this question. With this policy providing the basis for a powerful natural experiment, we can now measure the impact particulate pollution has on the lifespans of people living anywhere in the world.
Air Pollution Progress in China
On March 4, 2014, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told almost 3000 delegates at the National People’s Congress and many more watching live on state television, “We will resolutely declare war against pollution as we declared war against poverty.”
Four years after that declaration, China is making huge gains in the war at a record pace. In fact, it took about a dozen years and the 1981-1982 recession for the United States to achieve what China has done in just four years.
How has the country been able to make significant cuts in pollution? Months before the premier’s speech, China released a national air quality action plan that required all urban areas to reduce concentrations of fine particulate matter pollution by at least 10%, more in some cities. The Beijing area was required to reduce pollution by 25%, and the city set aside an astounding US$113 billion for that purpose.