China is cleaning up fast

Here’s the NYT:

On March 4, 2014, the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, told almost 3,000 delegates at the National People’s Congress and many more watching live on state television, “We will resolutely declare war against pollution as we declared war against poverty.” . . .

Four years after that declaration, the data is in: China is winning, at record pace. In particular, cities have cut concentrations of fine particulates in the air by 32 percent on average, in just those four years.

Back in 2013, I was very skeptical of claims that pollution was dramatically shortening life expectancy in China.  Despite the following, I’m still skeptical.

To investigate the effects on people’s lives in China, I used two of my studies (more here and here) to convert the fine particulate concentrations into their effect on life spans. . . . Applying this method to the available data from 204 prefectures, residents nationally could expect to live 2.4 years longer on average if the declines in air pollution persisted.

The roughly 20 million residents in Beijing would live an estimated 3.3 years longer, while those in Shijiazhuang would add 5.3 years, and those in Baoding 4.5 years. . . .

The U.S. Clean Air Act is widely regarded as having produced large reductions in air pollution. In the four years after its 1970 enactment, American air pollution declined by 20 percent on average. But it took about a dozen years and the 1981-1982 recession for the United States to achieve the 32 percent reduction China has achieved in just four years.

. . . Bringing all of China into compliance with its own standards would increase average life expectancies by an additional 1.7 years (as measured in the areas where data is available). Complying with the stricter World Health Organization standards instead would yield 4.1 years.

I’m still not buying these claims.  Beijingers currently live to be 82.  Will this reduction in pollution push their life expectancy up to 85.3?  I doubt it.  Would meeting the WHO standards boost life expectancy up an additional 4.1 years to 89.4?  Very unlikely.

To be sure, life expectancy has been rising in Beijing, and will keep rising–perhaps to 85 or 86.  But that was equally true when pollution was getting worse.  The effects of pollution have been exaggerated in the press, as Andrew Gelman so ably pointed out back in 2013.

Having said all that, this news is certainly very good, and means that Chinese RGDP growth was overstated during the boom period of 1980-2012, and is currently being understated.



11 Responses to “China is cleaning up fast”

  1. Gravatar of Alec Fahrin Alec Fahrin
    16. March 2018 at 15:46

    1. What’s even more impressive (or scary) is comparing the pollution in 2018 to the pollution in 2007.

    There are no good statistics for the entire country from that period, but NASA data on sulfur dioxide concentrations in different countries show that China’s air pollution was even worse before the 2008-2009 global economic slowdown.

    Anecdotally, I believe the 1990s were the worst for air pollution in the cities. That’s was before the rest of the country industrialized, so all the coal power was concentrated in the cities. Combine that with hundreds of millions of household coal burners, and you had basically a permanent smog during the winter of 1998.

    The cities have been improving ever since, but the industrialization in the countryside caused pollution to flow into the cities and negated some of the improvement. Now you are seeing air pollution fall in all but the most rural and poor provinces.

    2. I agree that air pollution is less harmful to the average lifespan than is commonly reported. A lot of alarmism in the data, and none of the studies follow test subjects health over a couple decades. So they just look at a few years and conclude that the trend must be true based upon those few examples.
    Still, “effective” lifespans are extended when air pollution levels are lower. People get less asthma, can go outside more often, and are generally happier when they cannot taste the air.

    3. “Having said all that, this news is certainly very good, and means that Chinese RGDP growth was overstated during the boom period of 1980-2012, and is currently being understated.”

    Exactly. I read that China spent 3% of GDP on cleaning up the environment/stopping more pollution over the past five years. If you combine that number with the GDP growth number, China grew 10% on average since 2012. China never slowed down economically.

    That is why the Chinese leadership is emphasizing quality growth and not quantity of growth. GDP is not everything in life, but hey, historically most Chinese prefer to eat over having less pollution.

  2. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    16. March 2018 at 15:53

    Alec, Yes, when I visited in the 1990s the coal smell was worse than in the 2000s.

  3. Gravatar of Randomize Randomize
    17. March 2018 at 08:24

    Given how different the Chinese diet is than the Western diet, it’s hard to guess what a “reasonable” life expectancy would be. Maybe something more like Japan’s 83?

  4. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    17. March 2018 at 09:28

    Randomize, Yes, I think so.

  5. Gravatar of Alec Fahrin Alec Fahrin
    17. March 2018 at 22:09

    I have a suggestion that can help China and the USA fix some of the trade deficit.

    China will buy $100 billion of natural gas from the USA and use that gas to replace coal power plants. Allow China to invest without major restrictions in US LNG production and fracking companies.

    It just seems so obvious. China helps develop the US gas industry, the US helps Chinese breathe again, and the trade deficit is reduced. This is happening, but restrictions on Chinese investment in “utilities” are making it really difficult. China’s gonna hack the fracking companies and use that tech to build up China’s non-existent fracking industry…

    But hey, far better to start a trade war with $60 billion in tariffs than to strike a deal that is so blatantly obvious and good for Republican states.
    Everyone needs a boogeyman. Finding solutions to get rid of the boogeyman is not incentivized for politics. You’d lose the whipping boy.

  6. Gravatar of Matthias Goergens Matthias Goergens
    18. March 2018 at 02:59

    Improving air quality might not win raw life years much, but certainly quality adjusted life years.

  7. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    18. March 2018 at 08:00

    Matthias, That’s right.

  8. Gravatar of StatsGuy StatsGuy
    19. March 2018 at 18:51

    Please be cautious about generalizing about statistical inference regarding a particular topic from one paper. Gelman pulled that one out for a reason. The wider body of work is much more conservative.

    There is a large body of evidence which directly addresses your concerns regarding over-estimation (for example, correlation of pollution with poverty, which decreases lifespan through many mechanisms). The better constructed studies try to address this through several mechanisms (like longitudinal cohort studies).

    For example, a recent WHO multi study summary suggests the impact of pollution is on the order of just under a year on average. Reducing levels to comply with WHO restrictions in the most polluted cities would add 20 months to average lifespan.

    Given the impact on the most vulnerable populations (very young with developing lungs, and very old), I would find it very believable that China’s most polluted cities might add up to 1.7 years of life if they achieved WHO targets. Interestingly, that also complies with a simple linear model in the paper Gelman reviewed.

    And that’s just mortality – not morbidity.

    Given this, the ROI on basic measures to clean the air (like scrubbers on coal towers) is stupidly high. Particularly since costs have decreased due to technology that was developed post 1972.

    While China should be commended, it’s important not to understate what was achieved by the Clean Air Act. If ever there was a clear case for a libertarian to support government intervention, that was it. (leaving choice of mechanism aside)

  9. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    20. March 2018 at 12:55

    Statsguy, That’s fine, but I was responding to the claims in the article I cited here. I was certainly not claiming that pollution does not reduce life expectancy, or that reducing it is a bad idea.

  10. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    27. March 2018 at 11:59

    A few weeks ago I looked this up and in the cities pollution was much worse in the 90s with Beijing peaking around 2000.

    And Bejing’s life expectancy ain’t stopping at 85 or 86 – not even close. The first health pills, NR and NMN, are already on the market and will be followed by stem cell therapies, CRISPR and much, much more.

  11. Gravatar of TallDave TallDave
    10. April 2018 at 07:52

    Hmmm… well, maybe. The NYT seems overly credulous given that 1) China lies about everything with respect to national or Party pride, to the point it censored images of Winnie the Pooh because they were used to mock Xi 2) China has specifically complained that other countries’ embassies are all lying about the severity of air pollution in China, a brazen claim even for the ChiComs.

    Other sources suggest China is still one of the worst in the world, though to some extent this is because most other countries are also improving in absolute terms.

    That said the health effects are probably exaggerated (it’s not like LE actually fell during industrialization anywhere ever) and it does seem like China’s air is improving (though as with much else, the details are ineffable).

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