Death by Breath (Part 1)

Two years ago, I wrote a term paper regarding the economic costs of air pollution in China and I justified a policy agenda to curtail emissions based upon those negatives. I bring this up because we will be embarking on a new series on China; however, this time, rather than an overview of their government, culture, or diplomacy, we will start by discussing China’s commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement. In a couple articles, the questions we will try to answer are: why does China appear to be in the vanguard of countries implementing this agreement? What has China been doing to ‘go green’? And, finally, what are the current costs of these issues?

As a starting point, let’s look at what climate change is and isn’t, as well as what the broad strokes of the climate agreement are. Climate change happens whenever any environmental change in a specific area (from your backyard to the whole planet) occurs that is different than the average norm. This could be a change in temperature, precipitation, or even general weather patterns. This distinction is important, because, all-too-often, climate change is used interchangeably with global warming. True, both can denote changes in the average temperatures, but only climate change can capture the true complexity of all climactic changes (i.e. cooling, warming, worsening weather, etc.). This article will be focusing, specifically on the weather and air quality aspects of climate change.

Besides the terminology, we need to understand what the Paris agreement is at a basic level. First, this is a relatively mature agreement. I say this because a finalized version of the document has existed since 2015, and negotiations for the agreement began way back in 2011. Additionally, this agreement aims to improve global development as a means of meeting emission reductions. When I say global, I do mean every country, including developed and underdeveloped alike. But, unlike a normal law, the only way that this agreement can be enforced is by way of public shaming (i.e. country A didn’t fulfill their promises, so countries B, C, and D heavily criticize them). As weak as finger-wagging sounds the honor system does work in international diplomacy. The most notable example of this is the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Despite their differences, both treaties are founded upon trust and shame; although there are areas of weakness in both agreements, the NPT has largely been a success. This is due to a global understanding that one country slipping up could kill all of us.

At this point we know how we’re using climate change and we’ve gone into the basics of the Paris Agreement, as well as how other good-faith agreements have largely succeeded. So how does this all connect to China? Air pollution. We all know that air pollution is less than ideal. Whether we look at moves toward less polluting methods of fossil fuel use or the crusades against smog throughout the latter half of the 20th century, air pollution is that ever-present evil we all despise. The Paris Agreement does target specific air pollutants, which it dubs greenhouse gasses. These pollutants (mainly CO2 and methane) are what scientists bill as driving an average increase in temperatures. They say the primary source of greenhouse gases, as many already know, is human activity; human activity, however, produces other air pollutants that have more immediate effects on us than simply changing temperatures. While there are a myriad of specific air pollutants, we will talk about two categories that are currently causing significant issues for China and the world. These are: particulate matter (PM) 2.5 and 10.

Rather than specific gasses or toxins, PM 2.5 and 10 are categories for microscopic, airborne solids. Think of these as akin to salt water; you might not be able to see the salt, but when you drink the water or spend a lot of time in the ocean you know that salt is there. Particulate matter is quite similar to salt water, because it is largely invisible and dangerous when ingested. In Beijing and many other Chinese cities, particulates in the air are at crisis levels that exact massive human and financial costs. While not the only type of air pollutant, PMs are major components of air pollution in China and globally.

On December 7th, 2015, Beijing’s air quality was so bad that the city was forced to cease all non-vital functions for a day. In fact, there are days where levels of air pollution are literally off the charts, and I don’t mean that ironically. The US Environmental Protection Agency measures air pollution using an index from 0-500. While no amount of pollution is truly safe, any 0-150 rating poses a relatively small threat to our health. A rating of 151-500 or higher, however, is a different story. Many Chinese cities have a normal air quality that exceeds a rating of 151, and on their worst days can have ratings greater than 500. Once your area surpasses that upper limit, the actual value becomes unimportant, because you’re effectively smoking a cigarette, standing in a factory’s smokestack, and taking occasional gulps of car exhaust.

Though a tad hyperbolic—since if you managed to do all of the above things you likely die much faster than if you just lived in Beijing—the above accurately captures the average off the charts air pollution experience. Breathing the air in Beijing is roughly equivalent to smoking 1.5 cigarettes per hour or a lifespan reduction of 20 minutes. This reality creates approximately $100 billion (USD) worth of public health costs for the Chinese government in 38 cities alone. In terms of life, some 17% (or 1.6 million) Chinese deaths annually are connected to air pollution.

Just to be fair to China, air pollution is having cataclysmic effects globally. In the United Kingdom outdoor air pollution contributes to nearly 40,000 premature deaths annually, and is inflating healthcare costs. Asthma alone, which can be caused and/or made worse by air pollution, has seen its annual cost of treatment rise to nearly $1.3 billion USD. Even the US struggles with air pollution; in 2013, MIT found that some 200,000 deaths annually are caused by air pollution related illnesses (from circulatory to respiratory illnesses). Globally, an estimated 5.5 million people are dying annually due to air pollution. To put this number in context, the upper estimate for civilian deaths in World War II was 80 million. At 5.5 million per year, air pollution’s death toll surpasses WWII’s every 15 years.

The crux of the issue is that everything producing greenhouse gases is producing some form of air pollution. True, it’s not really possible to entirely do away with everything that creates air pollution in the near future; however, an immediate end to air pollution and greenhouse gasses has never been the practical goal. Instead, the focus has been on how we can work together globally to reduce pollution, while not handicapping the entire global economy.  Unfortunately for China, they are an exception, and regardless of what the world does, they have been forced to address their own pollution crisis. In light of China’s catastrophic pollution problem, their support for the Paris agreement is less altruism and more conveniently aligned with what they were already doing. Sadly, as was the case with my North Korea series, the question of what China has been doing to combat air pollution will have to wait until next time.


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