Death by Breath (Part 2)

Death by Breath (Part 2)

Last week we covered the current human and financial cost of air pollution in China. The situation has grown so dire that the annual cost of air pollution is over $100 billion and rising, while over 1.5 million deaths each year are related to air pollution. We know that such a massive public health crisis cannot easily be ignored. In recent years the Chinese government has taken steps to address its abysmal air quality.

To start, let’s look at what causes China’s air pollution. Knowing why a problem exists informs a government of how they can address it while showing us if a government’s ‘progressive’ policy actually addresses a problem, or if it just pretends to. In China, one of the worst aspects of air pollution is particulate matter (PM). The main source of PM 2.5 in China’s air is coal burning. In 2013, 40% of PM 2.5 came from coal burning. Although the location and reason for coal burning are diverse, 2013 saw some 366,000 deaths as a result of coal use. Unfortunately, addressing the source of coal burning is difficult.  The Health Effects Institute highlighted various sources of coal burning, ranging from power plants and industry to transportation and home-use. The silver lining in all of this is that the sources of air pollution are fairly efficient at creating pollution; this means that regulating sources of PM 2.5 will also reduce other emissions.

So, what has been happening so far? Contrary to popular belief, China has had formal environmental standards going back to before the 1980s. In 1979, the Environmental Protection Law was implemented as a trial. Since 1979, this law and hundreds of other laws, regulations, and principles have been formally adopted. Some researchers reviewing the history of China’s environmental policies noted that, together, these regulations covered every aspect of the environment. There is just one problem: these regulations weren’t seriously enforced until the mid-2000s.

A feature of China’s governing process hindered early environmental laws’ enforcement. While we won’t be discussing the broad structure or history of China’s government until next week, this specific aspect of it is important to understand environmental protection. Whereas the US has a democratic system that selects head executives through competitive election, China has a largely bureaucratic executive system. In the US, an elected executive goes through a process of appointing, promoting, demoting, and firing public servants.

China’s system differs in an important regard: promoting and demoting. In China, public servants at the local, regional, and national levels are given objectives to work towards during a fixed amount of time. Depending on how successfully or unsuccessfully a public servant works, they can be promoted, demoted, fired, or retained. On top of this, certain objectives are on a ‘veto-track.’ Failing to reach a specific veto-track objective means that one will not be promoted, full stop. Despite being law, environmental objectives were not veto-track until 2006. While meeting environmental objectives would be viewed favorably, failing to meet them didn’t matter until 2006.

In 2006, the Chinese government issued its 11th Five Year Plan (FYP), which set a 10% reduction from 2005 levels of airborne sulfur dioxide and a 20% reduction in energy use relative to Gross Domestic Product (basically: ‘use less energy to run the economy’). Even though these goals have been largely met and the next FYP, in 2012, kept and expanded these provisions, air quality has remained poor. On top of that, the annual cost and death toll continues to rise. Unfortunately, because air pollution is intricate, addressing one aspect doesn’t solve the whole problem. The FYP in 2012 recognized this and doubled down on the policies from 2006.

Despite their progress, China faced such a severe air pollution crisis in 2013 that the government ‘declared war’ on air pollution. This is where our good friend PM 2.5 reappears. Unlike previous crises, the chief culprit in 2013 was PM 2.5. If 2006 represents a serious response to pollution after years of inaction, 2013 is a wakeup call that triggered an all-out offensive. China’s assault on air pollution took shape in the aggressive Action Plan, which set ambitious emission and reduction targets for 2017. In fact, Action Plan controls dealing with power plants were more strict than the US or Japan.

Fast-forwarding to November 2016, we can see that the Action Plan has been fairly effective. Levels of sulfur dioxide and total particulates in the air have peaked and are in decline, and the desire to reduce pollution remains strong. Unfortunately, other types of air pollution (specifically nitrogen oxide, PM 2.5, ozone, and pollutants resulting from atmospheric reactions with emissions) have remained unchanged or grown worse.

This is where we get cynical. Recent months have seen China make decisions that appear focused on combating the warming effects of climate change. For example, in January of this year, China canceled plans to build 103 coal-fired power plants. That same month, the government announced plans to invest over $360 billion in renewable energy sources by 2020. Finally, following President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement, China seems to be fully committed to combating global temperature rises.

Amid so much progress, it is easy to forget that the international attention focused on climate change is more than convenient for China. I’m not trying to detract from significant and constructive progress, but rather to caution against misreading China’s intentions. By the numbers, coal-fired production of electricity is the single largest producer of greenhouse gases, but we also know that coal use is the largest contributor to PM 2.5 pollution in China. Even as China’s air pollution is projected to significantly decline by 2030, the total cost and death rate is expected to continue climbing. Generally, this means that China’s commitment should be viewed as entirely reactionary, rather than proactive. True, the Chinese government recognizes the long-term threat posed by climate change; however, tracing their recent actions to this recognition is disingenuous. While global concern focuses on potential consequences for inaction, China’s concern is laser-focused on the present consequences of past irresponsibility. Knowing that China’s actions are motivated by the present should change how you assess information discussing any environmental initiative involving China. If the author does not mention or downplays this point, then you can be reasonably certain that you’re not getting the complete story.

Impressive environmental reforms aside, a common theme in Chinese policy has been speed. To the casual observer, China may seem to be in a cycle of reaction followed quickly by obsession. In truth, this cycle is far more calculated than it appears. Next week, we will delve into the structure and history of China’s government, why it operates so quickly, and how its rapid, focused pursuit of its goals shapes its approach to governance.


Forsythe, Michael, “China Aims to Spend at Least $360 Billion on Renewable Energy by 2020,” The New York Times, 5 January 2017. Web. Accessed: 9 June 2017.

Forsythe, Michael, “China Cancels 103 Coal Plants, Mindful of Smog and Wasted Capacity,” The New York Times, 18 January 2017. Web. Accessed: 9 June 2017.

GBD MAPS Working Group, HEI Special Report 20: Burden of Disease Attributable to Coal Burning and Other Major Sources of Air Pollution in China, Boston: Health Effects Institute, 2016. Web. Accessed: 9 June 2017.

Jin, Yana, Henrik Andersson, and Shiqiu Zhang, “Air Pollution Control Policies in China: A Retrospective and Prospects,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 13 (December 2016). Web. Accessed: 9 June 2017.

“What is China Doing to Tackle its Air Pollution?,” BBC News, 20 January 2016. Web. Accessed: 9 June 2017.

Wong, Edward, “Coal Burning Causes the Most Air Pollution Deaths in China, Study Finds,” The New York Times, 17 August 2016. Web. Accessed: 9 June 2017.