China’s Clean Air Campaign Is Bringing Down Global Pollution

CHina’s efforts to reduce air pollution have been nearly equaled by the US in just seven years. This has helped bring down global average smog levels.

The amount of harmful particulates in the air in China fell 40% from 2013 to 2020, according to the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute, which would add about two years to average life expectancy if sustained. Although smog is still dangerously high in many areas, it has been proven that progress can quickly be made. This was according to Professor Michael Greenstone’s report, published Tuesday.

About 97% of the world’s population live in areas where air quality is usually worse than World Health Organization guidelines, according to the researchers. They found that smog has a greater impact on global life expectancy than smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, or poor sanitation.

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“China’s success in reducing pollution is a strong indication of the opportunities that could lie ahead for other nations if they were to impose strong pollution policies, as some are beginning to do,” they said.

Even in the US and Europe, which have been battling pollution for decades and account for just 4.1% of the global health burden from airborne particulates, more than 90% of people live in areas that don’t meet WHO guidelines, which were tightened last year.

Aerial view of Canton Tower, Guangzhou province, China, at dawn on January 1, 2021

Gan Jun/VCG via Getty Images

China’s success, led by restrictions on car use and coal burning in major cities, has been rapid, with its 40% decline in seven years nearly equaling a 44% drop in US pollution over 30 years from 1970, after the landmark Clean Air Act was passed, the researchers said by email. Yet, Beijing is still three times worse polluted that Los Angeles. It’s also the most polluted city in America. The national average of air particulates remains six times greater than what the WHO recommends.

Without China’s declines, the world would have seen average pollution levels increase since 2013 instead of drop, the researchers said. That’s because of worsening air quality in the industrializing countries of South and Southeast Asia and Central Africa. Both Cambodia and Thailand saw their pollution levels rise more than 10% between 2020 and 2021, while nearby Singapore and Indonesia had lower levels. The most polluted places in the world include Burundi and Rwanda as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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Almost half the world’s increase in air pollution came from India in 2020, even after a strict nationwide lockdown was imposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in March that year. Concentrations of toxic particles less than 2.5 micrometers in size — or PM 2.5 — rose 2.9%. In Pakistan, they advanced 6.3%, and in Bangladesh — the most polluted nation on Earth with particulate levels 15 times higher than WHO guidelines — the increase was 13%.

“Air pollution really is a stubborn problem that takes decades-long investments to really see true progress,” said Christa Hasenkopf, the study’s co-author and director of Air Quality Programs at the University of Chicago. “The health burden of air pollution on South Asia is just staggering.”

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