Air pollution increases premature death risk in China, study warns

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China government’s “war on pollution” appears to be working, with five more cities meeting air standards in 2014 than in 2013. However, while the cutting back on coal and cleaning up polluting industry is making an impact, a new analysis shows over 250,000 people in China’s 31 major cities are still expected to face premature death due to serious air pollution. This number could be reduced by over 100,000 if China implements plans to meet the 2030 air quality goals. On Wednesday, an official said China plans to launch the first stages of a national carbon market in 2016, to ban new coal mines in Eastern China and to the nation’s reduce reliance on fossil fuels. While China’s struggle with pollution should serve as a strong warning to India to do everything it can to avoid a coal-based development path, the reality is India is already suffering severe air pollution problems and related health impacts. Over 50 per cent of children in Delhi are suffering from respiratory problems, according to the city’s high court, which intends to take up the issue of air pollution if the Supreme Court fails to deal with it.

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Key Points

  • Air pollution is now a bigger risk to health and life in some of China’s major cities than smoking, according to a new study. It reveals that one in seven deaths in 31 cities including Beijing is due to air pollution. The research, conducted by Peking University and Greenpeace, is one of the first studies to map out the impacts of air pollution on premature deaths over the long-term in China. Long-term exposure to small particulate matter known as PM2.5 can lead to heart disease, strokes and lung disease, including cancer, according to the World Health Organization, and can also trigger asthma attacks.
  • This is a clear warning on the dirty development pathway hurting long term prosperity and the ability to pull people out of poverty, and by choosing coal leaders are risking the lives of hundreds of thousands of their people, if not millions, when there are better alternatives. Alarmed by the dire air quality, a bench of justices in Delhi High Court said on Wednesday they are ready to deal with the issue of air pollution if the Supreme Court is not, as it is “unacceptable” to see over 50 per cent of children in the city suffering from respiratory problems due to poor air quality. Actually, India has “abundant untapped energy resources” including solar, wind and water power. With India and US cutting a deal to invest in massive deployment of solar electricity in India and to boost research into other renewable energies, India could use China’s fight with pollution as a warning, tap the abundant energy resources and take a clean development pathway.
  • Vested interests argue that coal is the only choice for poor developing nations like India, but this not only ignores the huge social, economic and health costs of pollution, but it is no longer true given the crashing cost of renewable energy.  According to a recent report, China has surpassed EU to become a global leader in PV installations in 2013. The booming photovoltaic market in Asia has led to an 80 per cent reduction in the cost of panels since 2008. With China aiming for a 15 GW installation target for 2015 to boost the use of renewable energies nationally, solar power industries will continue to grow and the price will keep coming down.

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  • “These findings lay bare once again the paradox at the heart of China’s old development pattern relying on dirty industry. Prosperity and living standards keep growing, yet millions of people in the country’s largest cities are seeing their lives cut short by alarming levels of air pollution.” Greenpeace East Asia campaigner Fang Yuan
  • “It need not be so. The fact that China’s coal consumption is falling while the economy keeps expanding shows that smog-choked cities are not the inevitable by-product of business growth.” Greenpeace East Asia campaigner Fang Yuan  
  • “With tens of thousands of lives hanging in the balance, it’s crucial that Chinese authorities move swiftly to implement plans to curb coal burning and clean up air pollution.” Greenpeace East Asia campaigner Fang Yuan

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