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Pollution causes 470'000 premature deaths in China every year – too high a price to pay for development?

Pollution in all its forms is a serious problem in China. It is caused to a large extent by a fast industrialization process which did quite often not take into account the damage caused to the environment. However, before we condemn the industry as a whole, we should consider the human progress it made possible.

Chinese people often wear face masks to protect against dust and pollution.

Chinese people often wear face masks to protect against dust and pollution. Photo: World Bank.

Everybody has already seen the pictures of Chinese cities shrouded in a cloud of smog, where the sun is reduced to a pale disc. Pollution is not only ugly, it is also a deadly threat to human health. According to a study by the World Bank, the air quality improved in the Chinese cities within the last 25 years and the quantity of energy necessary to produce a unit of GDP has decreased in a spectacular way. Despite this progress, the ambient air pollution causes the premature deaths of 400,000 Chinese every year (for the results, see the Brief status report). In average, it costs each Chinese 2-4 months of his or her life. Water pollution causes the death of further 70,000 people each year. How is it that the Chinese don't undertake more to solve this problem?

When these figures are mentioned in our media, they are never compared to the corresponding figures for our region. According to the official figures of the European Union, air pollution causes the premature death of 370,000 people each year within the EU. This is slightly less than in China, but for a population of 500 million instead of 1.3 billion people… This corresponds to a reduction in the average life span of 8 months. How is it that the European pollution is more deadly than the Chinese one?

The smog visible in many Chinese cities is mostly made of dust and sulfur dioxide particles. The dust comes from the deserts in the north, from the numerous construction sites and from the streets which are quite often not made of tar, but of concrete; each vehicle passing by will lift up a lot of dust, because its tires work like small mills on the concrete particles. The sulfur dioxide comes from coal-fuelled power plants; it makes the air difficult to breathe and is harmful to plants ("acid rain"), but it is not so deadly to human beings.

The most deadly form of pollution is made up of small sooth particles produced by combustion engines, in particular diesel engines. Even if the European vehicles are "cleaner" than their Chinese counterparts, the 500 vehicles per 1000 inhabitants we have got in Europe pollute more than the 33 vehicles per 1000 inhabitants owned by the Chinese in 2007.

Another factor contributes certainly to reduce the mortality due to pollution in China: even if life expectancy increased in a spectacular way since Mao Zedong came to power, it is still lower than in Western countries. Air pollution is a deadly threat especially for the elderly. An equivalent or even worse pollution in China would therefore kill less people than in Western countries.

However, even if the pollution in China is relatively less deadly than in Europe, it is much more detrimental to the quality of life. Many foreigners who arrive in China get immediately a chronic cough or cold; quite often, they can get rid of it only after they leave the country. The local population is more used to the pollution, but suffers from it too.

Is the price to pay for industrialization too high? Instead of considering only the lives which are lost, we should also take into account the lives which are saved. Without the industrialization of the last six decades, China would certainly have remained a very poor country.

Because of the very high population density, the Chinese can never achieve a high standard of living through agriculture alone. For such a large country, an export based services sector or tourism can not play a major role. The purchase power parity per capita GDP would probably be below USD 1000.-, which corresponds to one of the poorer African countries.

With such a standard of living, even in the ideal case where the governments makes optimal efforts to improve the access to healthcare, infant mortality would be around 43‰ instead of the current value of 16.6‰ (for an explanation of the methodology on which this figure is based, see our article The right to health – How can we hold governments accountable?). As a consequence, 380,000 more babies would die each year as compared to the current situation. Many more children, adolescents and adults would also die because of the misery from which agriculture would provide them with no way of escape.

Before the large scale industrialization which started with Mao Zedong in 1949, the life expectancy was 36 years; now, it is about 73 years. Compare this with the 2-4 months of life lost because of air pollution, and you will understand why the Chinese chose industrialization.

However, the more the standard of living increases, the more daily well-being and the environment become important in the eyes of the population. Ecological movements have met growing success in China in the last years, and the communist regime understands very well that it must achieve a visible improvement in this field. Therefore, it is quite probable that the sky will become blue again in Chinese cities. According to several sources, this development is well under way, especially in the capital Beijing.

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