Berkeley Earth, a California-based climate science research non-profit, has released a study on the effects of air pollution on mortality in China. Calling China’s air pollution “the greatest environmental catastrophe in the world today,” the study claims that 17% of all deaths in China are caused by polluted air. That translates to over 4,000 deaths per day. This is more than double the mortality rate attributed to air pollution in a recent study by the China Coal Consumption Cap Project. The Berkeley Earth study also claims that nearly 40% of China’s population breathes “unhealthy” air on a daily basis. Not surprisingly, the chief culprit is PM2.5. While the mortality rate suggested by the Berkeley Earth study is shocking, and has made for splashy news coverage, the levels of air pollution indicated in the study have been well-known for some time. The study also weighs in on Beijing’s promise to clean up the air before the 2022 Winter Olympics (air quality in Beijing is typically worst during the winter months), claiming that since most of Beijing’s air pollution is not generated in Beijing but in the heavily industrialized regions around Sijiazhuang and Handan, to the south, as well as Tangshan to the east, cleaning up Beijing’s air will prove difficult without tackling a much larger region of the country. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2012, however, suggested that Beijing’s high-cost efforts to clean up the air for the 2008 Olympics (including removing millions of vehicles from the roads, seeding clouds, and shutting down factories, power plants, and construction sites) had actually been remarkably successful at reducing air pollution and producing measurable health benefits for Beijing residents. Still, producing healthier air in the winter will be a much greater challenge.
See Berkeley Earth’s press release here. The group was founded in 2010 specifically to scrutinize the science behind global warming with an eye toward taking so-called ‘climate skeptics’ or ‘climate deniers’ seriously. The group even received partial funding from the Koch brothers, who have waged a systematic campaign to discredit the science behind global warming. Significantly, in 2012, after two years of data gathering and analysis, the group published its findings, concluding that not only was global warming “real” but that “Humans are almost entirely the cause.” Since the group’s “conversion” from ‘climate skeptics’ to joining the international consensus on the anthropogenic causes of global warming, they have focused much of their work on what needs to be done to battle climate change. Not surprisingly, China – with its enormous coal consumption – has figured prominently on their list of action items. This study is part of a package of work advocating China’s shift from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas and, more controversially, nuclear energy, in order to meet its growing energy needs.
Given the government’s earlier reaction to Chai Jing’s Under the Dome, it is unlikely that this study will see wide distribution in China. But then, nobody knows better than the Chinese themselves the daily costs of bad air.