China, the world’s leading polluter, “is winning the war against pollution”, to the point of sketching an increase in life expectancy of more than two years, according to a US study released Tuesday.
From data collected by 200 receivers spread across the country, the University of Chicago has calculated that the rate of fine particles, very harmful to health, has decreased by 32% between 2013 and 2017.
If this trend continues, the average life expectancy of the Chinese would increase by 2.4 years, according to the study. Fine particles (PM 2.5) play a role in cardiovascular and respiratory diseases as well as cancer.
“There is no example of a country achieving such a rapid reduction in air pollution. This is remarkable,” says Michael Greenstone, who led the study at the Energy Policy Institute of the University of Chicago. In contrast, it took more than a decade in the United States to achieve a comparable improvement after the enactment of an air law in 1970.
“What the last four years have proved is that things can change, and even quickly, with political will,” says Greenstone. “China has taken aggressive, and in some cases extraordinary, measures to reduce its pollution in a relatively short time span—from prohibiting new coal-fired power plants in the most polluted regions to physically removing the coal boilers used for winter heating from many homes and businesses,” he added.
Under pressure from public opinion, the communist regime launched in 2013 a plan against pollution to reduce by a quarter the concentration of fine particles in key areas such as around Beijing and Shanghai.
“China is not considered a democratic country and yet we see that the government has had to take measures that the public demanded,” notes Greenstone.
The anti-pollution policy has, however, been accompanied by economic and social costs, with the authorities ordering the closure of thousands of factories too close to the city center.
At the end of 2017, they also declared the end of coal heating, the main source of energy in China, in areas of the north of the country, even before gas heating systems could be installed. Schools in Hebei Province (north) had to hold classes in the courtyard, where the temperature was cooler than in the interior.
The winter, traditionally very polluted in the north of China, was relatively pure this year, but a peak of pollution hit Beijing Tuesday, with a fine particles rate higher than 300 micrograms per m3, more than 12 times the norm recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).