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The study reveals that polluted air reduces life expectancy

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Square Tjenanmen, Beijing (Picture: James Riker)

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

In contrast to the well-known air quality index, which emphasizes how good air quality is good or bad in a particular area, AKLI shows the costs of inhaling air pollution on the expected lifetime.

Look for the city on the AKLI map and you can see how long the inhabitants can expect to live if the PM2.5 levels reach a safe target of the World Health Organization of 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

The website was developed to give the public and policymakers a more direct understanding of the importance of reducing air pollution.

However, some academics say it would not be appropriate for environmental policies to be based too firmly on the relationship between PM2.5 and the expected life span. If policies do not take into account the differences in wealth between the regions, as well as between urban and rural areas, the poorer population can see the longevity even further.

The real cost of PM2.5

AKLI is based on two studies showing that life expectancy is reduced by 0.98 years for every 10 microgram PM2.5 per cubic meter.

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

Statistics show that Tianjin, one of the three most polluted cities in China in 2013, had a 14% fall in PM2.5 by 2016. If this improvement is maintained, the expected life expectancy of the city's 13 million people will increase by 1.2 years. Henan saw even greater progress in the same period, a drop of PM2.5 of 20%, equivalent to 1.3 years of extra life. Researchers found that if the PM2.5 concentrations were to meet the goal of the World Health Organization, the average lifespan would increase by 2.9 years.

"People always say that suppression of air pollution is too expensive, and that policy makers and the public want to see better evidence before they make further efforts. AKLI uses the most important measure – life expectancy – to show how important it is to solve the problem of air pollution, "Greenstone said.

Is an index useful?

However, Jennifer Holdavai, co-director of the Forum for Health, Environment and Development (FORHEAD), said: "As an interdisciplinary researcher, I do not think AKLI offers many new things."

She said that seven years ago, before the government took strong air pollution measures, many works were published showing the relationship between air quality and health. Now governments at all levels are investing resources in environmental protection and almost all are aware of the health risks of PM2.5. That's why it's a little worth working on new shocking figures. What is needed in policy making is to consider how to achieve maximum health benefits for the least social costs, which includes better addressing the needs of vulnerable populations.

According to the FORHEAD team report, the life expectancy in China is still closely linked to wealth. In richest cities such as Shanghai, Tianjin and Beijing, the life expectancy is higher than in the US or South Korea. In the meantime, the poorest provinces, mainly in western China, have a life expectancy at the same level as the countries of Southeast Asia.

The wealthier parts of China have reached a revenue threshold where pollution control is likely to have a greater benefit to public health than additional revenue increases. But in poorer regions of China, economic growth is likely to bring the greatest benefits to health.

Holdavai added that it is necessary to ensure that consumption for improving air quality in these economically weak regions does not harm other health-related factors, such as stable employment or public health investments. If environmental protection compete for resources with other public services, money will have to be transferred between regions to offset that loss.

China has an urgent need to maintain rapid economic growth and improve health by controlling pollution.

In an interview for chinadialogue, Michael Greenstone said that in the end there is no easy option. Ultimately, politics lies in the hands of local authorities. "I strongly suggest a more open attitude, allowing local authorities with a full understanding of the situation to experiment in order to find a balance that better suits reality," he said.

Who pays the blue sky?

Jiang Kejuan, a researcher at the National Energy Research Institute of the National Commission for Development and Reform, agrees with Jennifer Holdaway that special attention must be given to equity in addressing air pollution.

Since 2016, there has been a drive to clean air in the north of China by shifting domestic heating from coal to natural gas or electricity. Jiang's research has shown that good progress has been made, but in some cases it will take time for high costs to be absorbed.

Holdavai said about chinadialogue that violent environmental policies often come at the expense of future opportunities for poorer communities. For example, pollution industry in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region – steel and cement producers – are also its largest employers. Reducing production or closing factories means that many workers have to be laid off. During the transition, new high-tech or service jobs can be created, but dismissed workers do not have the education or skills to take advantage of.

"Historically, we see similar phenomena in Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom as they are de-industrialized, with increased inequality and the loss of jobs affecting entire families and future generations," Holdaway said.

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