According to new evidence, there is a devastating trade-off between coal-fueled economic growth and human life expectancy. Any progress in the U.S.-Chinese climate change talks could pave way for a truly global solution.
The concerns about climate change moved to a new stage only a few days ago. According to a just-published pioneering study, air pollution in northern China has caused the loss of 2.5 billion years of aggregate human life expectancy in the 1990s.
Together, the United States and China account for almost half of the world’s CO2 emissions. As a result, the two are also key players in efforts to address climate change, while energy cooperation is one of the more promising areas of bilateral collaboration.
Nevertheless, even elevated urgency will not easily change the different perspectives of the two great nations on climate change talks.
Economic growth, human adversities
In New York City, a lovely, relatively-pollution free summer day translates to a ‘good’ air quality index (AQI) of 40-50. In such conditions, PM2.5 air pollution poses little risk. In Shanghai, a similar summer day usually means an index of 80-120. However, a ‘moderate’ index value (AQI, 50-100) and ‘unhealthy’ levels that cause respiratory symptoms to sensitive groups (AQI, 101-150) are common, not to speak of higher values.
In northern China, the toxic smog became a national concern in January, when air pollution in Beijing soared beyond the air quality index (AQI, 500) as particulate-matter levels rose above 700 micrograms per cubic meter. Of course, these facts have been “known” in the past. What the new, breakthrough study confirms is that a very high level of air pollution can significantly reduce the lives of people who are exposed to it.
In the past, comparable studies on pollution effects in China have relied on long-term parallels in the United States and Europe. In contrast, the new study by U.S., Chinese and Israeli researchers (Michael Greenstone, Yuyu Chen, Avraham Ebenstein, and Hongbin Li) is based on longitudinal and quantitative data from the mainland. Due to pollution impact, the Chinese in the north have not only suffered from higher rates of lung cancer, heart attacks and strokes, but their life expectancy has been shortened by an average of 5.5 years.
The research design stems from a policy implemented before 1980, when the Chinese government provided free coal for fuel boilers for all people living north of the Huai River; a rough dividing line between north and south in China. The free-coal policy allowed people in the north stay warm in winter, but at the cost of notably worse environmental conditions.
From 1981 through 2000, air pollution, as measured by total suspended particulates, was about 55 percent higher north of the river than south of it. Further, there was also a sharp difference in mortality rates on either side of the border formed by the Huai River. This difference, in turn, was attributable to cardio-respiratory illness.
In the past three decades, Chinese growth performance has been world-historical. Unfortunately, the same goes for the pollution levels.
Comparing apples and oranges
Typically, China’s high levels of pollution are seen as a result of misguided or absent Chinese policies. That is a convenient way to attribute the responsibility exclusively to China. And yet, even today more than half of Chinese exports can be attributed to foreign multinational companies operating in China. Foreign direct investment (FDI) in China has played a significant role in Chinese industrialization and growth, and thus in Chinese pollution as well.
With the progress of industrialization and the rise of China during the past decade, there have been increasing comparisons of pollution experiences in the mainland and Western economies. In most cases, such comparisons have been flawed.
As the MIT News put it in the commentary on their pioneering study: “In China, particulate-matter levels were more than 400 micrograms per cubic meter between 1981 and 2001… By comparison, total suspended particulates in the United States were about 45 micrograms per cubic meter in the 1990s.”
In reality, post-industrial nations, such as the United States in the 1990s, and economies in which industrialization has just taken off, such as northern China in the same time period, represent very different levels of economic development. That difference can be illustrated by average prosperity level, as measured by the GDP per capita with purchasing parity power (PPP). After all, it is a rough measure of living standards.
In 1981, Chinese average prosperity level was less than 6 percent of that in the U.S. Two decades later, this figure had more than doubled to 13.2 percent. In terms of absolute growth, it translated to a world-historical growth performance. But in terms of relative prosperity level, it remained less than a fraction of that in the U.S.
In brief, pollution in industrializing northern China is not comparable with post-industrial America in the 1990s, but with U.S. manufacturing centers amidst U.S. industrialization in the late 19th century.
Aggregate and per capita responsibilities
While the pioneering study itself is heavy on tacit policy implications, its conclusions are thin. The authors believe that their results “may help explain why China’s explosive economic growth has led to relatively anemic growth in life expectancy” and be useful “in forming policy as developing countries search for the optimal balance between economic growth and environmental quality.”
In reality, the results of this study illustrate only partially the impact of China’s economic growth on Chinese life expectancy. After all, China’s postwar industrialization in the 1950s already achieved impressive growth and significant progress in life expectancy. It is thus a mistake to focus on Chinese life expectancy in the light of the post-reform period growth only.
More importantly, the policy implications involve both emerging and developing countries, and advanced economies. As China continues to rely heavily on coal to power its fast-growing economy, it is the world’s largest CO2 emitter, in aggregate terms. In per capita terms, this role belongs to the United States. Accordingly, the U.S.-Chinese disagreements over battling climate change focus on the relative responsibilities of developed and major developing nations.
Along with other emerging and developing nations, China argues that since advanced economies continue to have far higher levels of emissions per capita, they alone should be subject to legally binding commitments to reduce emissions, while developing nations’ reductions should be voluntary. In contrast, the U.S. Congress and the Obama administration will not support legally binding commitments, such as the Kyoto protocol, without binding commitments from other major emitters, such as China.
Washington sees China engaging in environmental blackmail. Beijing sees the U.S. in an effort to contain emerging nations’ rights to develop.
Pragmatic compromises may loom in the horizon, as indicated by the recent joint statements during Secretary of State Kerry’s trip to China in April. Nevertheless, successful U.S.-Chinese cooperation requires taking into account both the advanced nations’ concerns about aggregate pollution and the emerging economies’ concerns about per capita pollution.
A pragmatic U.S.-Chinese cooperation would go a long way to pave way for truly global solutions.
A version of this commentary was originally published by China-US Focus on July 11, 2013