By Michael Greenstone, Guojun He, and Ken Lee
In the years before the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, pollution in China had been sharply climbing. The government responded with quick reforms that temporarily reduced pollution during the games. The reforms, however, only managed to slow the climb in the long run. By 2013, pollution in China had reached record levels. The following year, the same year Beijing applied to host the 2022 Olympic Games, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang declared a “war against pollution” and vowed that China would tackle pollution with the same determination it used to tackle poverty.
Seven years later, pollution has declined dramatically by about 40 percent. In Beijing, there is half as much pollution compared to both 2008 and 2013 levels. In most areas of China, pollution has fallen to levels not seen in more than two decades. To put China’s success into context, these reductions account for more than three quarters of the global decline in pollution since 2013. Once the United States started to focus on reducing pollution in the early 1970s, it took several decades and recessions to achieve the same pollution reductions that China has accomplished in seven years. Due to these improvements, the average Chinese citizen can expect to live 2 years longer, provided the reductions are sustained. Residents of Beijing can expect to live 3.7 and 4.6 years longer, since 2008 and 2013 respectively.
Nevertheless, work remains. While China has met its national air quality standard, pollution levels as of 2020 were still six times greater than the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline. To further reduce pollution, China is taking rapid actions ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics. If those actions were to allow China to permanently reduce pollution to meet the WHO guideline, the average Chinese citizen could expect to gain an additional 2.6 years of life expectancy, on top of the gains since the war against pollution was initiated. Residents of Beijing could gain an additional 3.2 years.
Can China meet and sustain these further pollution reductions? To this point, the country has relied on command-and-control measures to swiftly reduce pollution. While the measures have worked, they have come with significant economic and social costs. As China now enters the next phase of its “war against pollution,” the long-run durability of its actions will be enhanced by minimizing the costs. Relying on market-based approaches are one solution that can effectively and inexpensively reduce pollution.