As a 67-year-old American man, I can expect to live another 11 years; our talent for denial being what it is, this is something I don't dwell on much. But if you were to tell me that because of some newly identified factor I can actually only expect to live half that long, I can guarantee this would get my attention.
It was from this perspective—admittedly not a completely logical one—that I digested the widely reported news yesterday that air pollution in northern China has cut life expectancy for the residents of that region by five and a half years. My first reaction was: Wow, that's a lot of years. Upon further sober reflection, my second reaction was: Wow, that's a lot of years.
The new estimate of China's air pollution toll, which is almost entirely attributable to combustion of coal, mainly in electricity generation but also for heating, comes from scholars at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tsingua University and Peking University in Beijing, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It appears this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study compares mortality among the 500 million people living in North China in the 1990s with those in the rest of the country and finds that differences are attributable almost entirely to respiratory ailments caused or aggravated by air pollution.
The gravity of the problem is of course nothing new. Credible estimates going back two decades have put the annual death toll from air pollution in China as high as a million. In the severely afflicted cities of the Northeast, communities have started to take drastic measures to protect their children, and the better off talk of emigrating--a new kind of brain drain.
Nevertheless, the new estimate of five-plus years reduced life expectancy is singularly attention-getting and is sure to circulate in China, however much the authorities try to minimize it. More than ever their attention will focus on how to reconcile jobs creation with public health by harnessing clean tech more effectively.