Choking on coal in China

By Joy Portella, President, Minerva Strategies —

I remember visiting China for the first time almost ten years ago. I woke up in the morning, stood at my hotel window, looking down on the streets of Beijing and saw…nothing.  I could barely discern the outline of the building across the way, and off in the distance there was the faint glow of an orb that was the sun.

Later that day, a China-based colleague confided in me, “I need to leave soon. My sinus issues are getting worse and worse, the air…” she waved her hand through the murkiness that hung above our heads.

The air was simply awful but beyond the anecdote of my colleague’s chronic sinus infections, it was tough for me to imagine the health impact of air pollution in China and other countries around the world. Last week I attended an event in Washington, DC that dramatically shifted my comprehension of this topic.

A press briefing at the conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) highlighted the frightening fact that air pollution kills millions of people, especially in Asia.  The briefing featured data from an ongoing research project called the Global Burden of Disease Study (GBD), which provides comprehensive, up-to-date data on which diseases and injuries – and their related risk factors – are causing death and illness around the world. The GBD is conducted by a 1,000+ person, global research team headed up by Minerva’s client the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).

The data highlighted at the AAAS conference were sobering. More than 5.5 million people died prematurely due to household and outdoor air pollution in 2013. More than half of those death occurred in China and India, where tremendous economic growth has led to skyrocketing demands for energy and off-the-charts air pollution.

In China, approximately 1.6 million people died because of air pollution in 2013. At this time of year, Beijing will see daily levels of particulate matter air pollution at or above 300 micrograms per cubic meter – that’s 12 times higher than WHO guidelines. The biggest contribution by far to this problem is coal consumption; outdoor air pollution from coal alone caused 366,000 deaths in 2013. Coal burning is a greater threat to health than high cholesterol, drug use, and secondhand smoke.

This situation has become increasingly dire as China’s population ages and becomes more susceptible to ailments like heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, and stroke. Qiao MA, a PhD student at the School of Environment, Tsinghua University in Beijing, talked at AAAS about how reductions in coal burning could save many lives.

This won’t get better anytime soon. Researchers described how the number of premature deaths would change if countries met their current targets to curb emissions. In the Chinese case, this “achievement” of hitting the targets would still cause anywhere from 990,000 to 1.3 premature deaths in 2030. That’s 990,000 in the best case scenario.

The solution according to both researchers: Create more stringent emissions targets. This will take significant effort and investment but it is the only way to make progress.

The good news is that we know what works to reduce air pollution and improve health. The U.S., UK, and other wealthy countries all overcame air pollution decades ago by creating cleaner fuels and vehicles, and controls on coal burning and other combustion at power plants and factories.

Emerging economies – with the right investments and policies – can do the same.

To learn more about data revealed at the AAAS briefing, check out this great piece by CBS News.