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The impact of polluted air on life expectancy

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Tiananmen Square, Beijing (Image: James Riker)

How much longer would you expect to live if you breathe clean air? If you are in Northeast China, it could be three or more years, according to the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI), which was launched in Beijing last month by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC).

In contrast to the well-known Air Quality Index, which indicates how good or bad the air quality in a certain area is, the AQLI shows the costs of inhaling polluted air on the basis of life expectancy.

Search for a city on the AQLI map and you can see how much longer residents could live there if the PM2.5 levels reached the safe target of 10 million kg per cubic meter of air from the World Health Organization.

The website has been developed to give the public and policy makers a more direct insight into the importance of reducing air pollution.

But some academics say it would not be right to base the environmental policy too heavily on the relationship between PM2.5 and life expectancy. If the policy does not take into account differences in prosperity between regions and between urban and rural areas, the poorer population groups may see the lifespan drop even further.

The real cost of PM2.5

The AQLI is based on two pieces of research showing that the life expectancy decreases by 0.98 years for every increase of 10 micrograms PM2.5 per cubic meter.

The index shows the value of China's success in reducing air pollution since 2013. The 12% decrease in PM2.5 levels between 2013 and 2016 means that people in China can live an average of six months longer. Michael Greenstone, director of EPIC, calls this success enormous and unprecedented.

Statistics show that Tianjin, one of China's three most polluted cities in 2013, saw a 14% decrease in PM2.5 by 2016. If that improvement is supported, the life expectancy of the city's 13 million inhabitants will increase. increase by 1.2 years. Henan saw an even greater improvement in the same period, a decrease of PM2.5 levels of 20%, equivalent to 1.3 years of extra life. Researchers found that if the PM2.5 levels met the goal set by the World Health Organization, the average life expectancy would increase by 2.9 years.

"People always say that tackling air pollution is too expensive and that policymakers and the public want to see better evidence before they make further efforts." AQLI uses the most important measure – life expectancy – to show immediately how important it is to tackle air pollution, " Greenstone said.

Is a single index useful?

However, Jennifer Holdaway, co-director of the Forum for Health, Environment and Development (FORHEAD) said: "As an interdisciplinary researcher, I do not think AQLI offers much news."

She said that seven years ago, before the government took strong measures against air pollution, many articles were published that show the connection between air quality and health. Now governments at all levels pump resources into environmental protection and almost everyone is aware of the health risks of PM2.5. That is why there is little value in the development of new shocking figures. What is needed in policy making is the question of how to achieve the maximum health gain for the least social costs, including a better approach to the needs of vulnerable populations.

According to a summary report from the FORHEAD team, life expectancy in China is still closely correlated with prosperity. Life expectancy is higher in the richest cities such as Shanghai, Tianjin and Beijing than in the US or South Korea. Meanwhile, the poorest provinces, mostly in western China, have a life expectancy equal to the countries in Southeast Asia.

Richer parts of China have reached an income threshold where pollution control is likely to have greater public health benefits than additional revenue increases. But in the poorer regions of China, economic growth is still likely to bring the greatest health benefits.

Holdaway added that it is essential to ensure that expenditure to improve air quality in those economically weaker regions does not damage other health-related factors such as stable employment or government investment in healthcare. If environmental protection competes for resources with other public services, money must be transferred between regions in order to compensate for that loss.

China urgently needs both rapid economic growth and improving health by managing pollution.

In an interview with chinadialogueMichael Greenstone said that ultimately there is no easy option. Policy is ultimately in the hands of the local government. "I strongly suggest a more open attitude, allowing local authorities who can fully understand the situation to experiment, to strike a better balance between reality," he said.

Who pays for blue skies?

Jiang Kejuan, a researcher at the Energy Research Institute of the National Development and Reform Commission, agrees with Jennifer Holdaway that special attention should be paid to fairness in tackling air pollution.

Since 2016 there has been an urge to clean up the air in the north of China by switching the heating of coal to natural gas or electricity. Jiang's research has shown good progress, but in some cases it will take time before the high costs are absorbed.

Told Holdaway chinadialogue that a strong environmental policy often comes at the expense of future opportunities for poorer communities. For example, the most polluting industries in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, steel and cement manufacturers, are also the largest employers. Reducing production or closure plants means that many employees have to be released. During the transition, new high-tech or service tasks can be created, but the redundant employees do not have the training or skills to benefit.

"Historically we see similar events in Germany, the US and the UK when they are de-industrialized, with increased inequality and job losses for entire families and future generations," said Holdaway.

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