The Problem and Impacts of Air Pollution in China

Standard Page - 2011-06-22
Millions of people in China are breathing a hazardous cocktail of chemicals every day. These chemicals are caused by coal-fired power plants, heavy industry, factories and vehicles, and are responsible for heart disease, stroke, respiratory illnesses, birth defects and cancer.

Millions of people in China are breathing a hazardous cocktail of chemicals every day. These chemicals are caused by coal-fired power plants, heavy industry, factories and vehicles, and are responsible for heart disease, stroke, respiratory illnesses, birth defects and cancer.

In recent years, China’s government has taken serious action against air pollution, but there is still a long way to go. We must continue the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources and ensure that strict emissions control standards are in place nationwide.

Coal and Our Lungs

Coal is the leading culprit of air pollution in China. Nationwide, coal accounted for 60.4% of the nation’s energy consumption in 2017. The portion of coal in China’s energy mix is falling, but northern China is home to the largest concentration of coal-fired power plants in the world.

While cars and trucks contribute significantly to emissions in urban areas, China’s frequent airpocalypses are a direct result of coal burning and other heavy industries. Solving China’s air pollution problem is dependent on breaking free from coal.

 

Dangerous Breathing

The health impact of air pollution is devastating. Air pollution has been linked to increased incidences of cancer, heart disease, stroke and respiratory illnesses. On a less severe level, it is associated with asthma in children, and thus impaired quality of life for many kids.

A research project co-authored by Greenpeace found that, in 2011, PM2.5 pollution from the 196 coal-fired power plants in the capital region of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei caused 9,900 premature deaths and nearly 70,000 outpatient visits or hospitalizations during. 75% of the premature deaths were caused by the 152 coal-fired power plants in Hebei Province.

A another study co-authored by Greenpeace found that, in 2013, PM2.5 pollution in China’s provincial capitals alone led to 257,000 premature deaths. Researchers also found that if 21 cities that had PM2.5 improvement targets of these cities were to meet their PM2.5 improvement targets in 2017, 26,000 lives would be saved.

 

Momentum for Change

Air pollution will remain a serious problem in China as long as coal continues to be the country's major energy source. The good news is that China’s massive shift from coal power to renewable energy is already underway – and is key to ensuring further air quality improvements. 

In 2013, the State Council implemented the ambitious Action Plan for Air Pollution Prevention and Control. The same year, China’s economic growth began to slow. Due to both of the these factors, air quality improved substantially.

Between 2012 and 2016, average PM2.5 exposure for China’s population fell by 20 percent. An estimated 160,000 deaths were avoided in 2016 due to the change in PM2.5 levels.

A six-month action plan implemented in Beijing, Tianjin and 26 nearby cities brought further dramatic improvements in air quality toward the end of 2017. PM2.5 in Beijing fell by 54% in the last three months of the year.

However, policies that favor coal and heavy industry are slowing down progress. There is an urgent need to continue the transition away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy sources and to ensure that strict emissions control standards are in place nationwide.

Key statistics:

  • Our report Dangerous Breathing found that if the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xi’an had effectively controlled PM2.5 levels and met WHO air quality guidelines in 2012, the number of premature deaths would have decreased by at least 81%, while the economic benefits of reducing these premature deaths in the four cities would amount to 875 million USD.
  • Another study found air pollution from coal power plants within Beijing and surrounds caused up to 9,900 premature deaths in 2011, with nearly 2,000 deaths in Beijing, 1,200 in Tianjin and 6,700 in Hebei. Research also indicates that coal power plants within the region caused 850 deaths from lung cancer, 190 cases of infant deaths, and increase amount of children suffering from asthma by 9,300 and number of people with chronic bronchitis by 12,000.
  • A study on the presence of heavy metals in air pollution during the heating season in Beijing found that concentrations of arsenic, lead and cadmium in PM2.5 declined by 85.9%, 48.9% and 40.7%, respectively, between 2013 and 2016. The decline in arsenic, which results heavily from coal combustion, was the most significant. This improvement corresponded with  air pollution prevention and control measures enacted in Beijing over the three year period.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution transition to clean energy sources. Greenpeace is working on reducing China's reliance on coal, in favor of renewable energy. For more on what we are doing, you can visit our section on coal.