China: 670,000 smog-related deaths a year

Photo: michael davis-burchat/ CC BY-ND

Around 157 million people in China lived in areas where the annual PM2.5 concentration in 2012 was higher than 100 μg/m3 – ten times the safety limit set by WHO.

Tiny smog particles (PM2.5), emanating from air pollution from coal burning, were linked to 670,000 premature deaths from four type of diseases – strokes, lung cancer, coronary heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – in China in 2012.

This health damage translates to an external cost of 166 yuan (€22) for each tonne of coal consumed. But authorities levied only about 5 yuan as a pollution fee per tonne of coal used by consumers, including power companies and iron, steel and cement producers.

Moreover, mining and transport of coal add additional external costs of 94 yuan per tonne, through impacts such as damage to groundwater resources, subsidence, deaths and occupational diseases.

These figures come from a study by researchers from Tsinghua and Peking universities, the China Academy of Environmental Planning and other government-backed institutes, that tries to put a price tag on the environmental and social costs of China’s heavy reliance on coal.

Damage to the environment and health from coal burning added up to 260 yuan (€34) for each tonne produced and used in 2012, said Teng Fei, an associate professor at Tsinghua University.

 “With existing environmental fees and taxes of between 30 to 50 yuan for each tonne of coal, the country’s current pricing system has largely failed to reflect the true costs,” Teng said.

“The health cost of the study is only based on the premature death figures due to the limitations of our research data,” said Li Guoxing from Peking University’s School of Public Health. “It could be way higher if we also include medical costs for other chronic illnesses.”

Teng estimates there would be a further cost of 160 yuan per tonne, on top of the 260 yuan calculated in the study, if the long-term social impact of climate change from coal burning were also considered.

According to the study, in 2012 more than 70 per cent of the population was exposed to annual PM2.5 pollution levels higher than 35 micrograms per cubic metre (μg/m3), the country’s benchmark for healthy air quality.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that annual PM2.5 concentrations should not exceed 10 μg/m3. In 2012, some 157 million people in China lived in areas where the annual PM2.5 concentration was higher than 100 μg/m3 – ten times the WHO’s recommendation.

Source: South China Morning Post, 5 November 2014.


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