Seeking solutions to China's air pollution crisis

Clean air

As Beijing continues to struggle with severely elevated air pollution levels this week, domestic and international media have kept a strong spotlight on China’s air quality. On Friday, the New York Times Chinese version published my essay “Seeking solutions to China’s air pollution crisis,” describing some of the fundamental causes of—and solutions to—air pollution in Chinese cities. In the essay, I note that air pollution is a regional problem, requiring widespread, deep, and permanent emissions cuts to solve. Implementing stringent emission reduction policies will not be easy (requiring confronting entrenched state-owned enterprises, among other challenges). I specifically highlight a case study of motor vehicle emission control:

以机动车排放控制为例,中国目前在机动车产销量全球第一,来自乘用车、公共汽车与卡车的排放是基数大并日益增长的污染源,但很多时候这个问题没有引起足够重视。尤其令人担心的是那些喷着黑烟招摇过市,在工厂、物流中心和城市间穿梭的长途柴油重型车。 中国环保部已经发布了名为“国IV”的标准,旨在将新卡车的有害颗粒物排放减少80%。但是,环保部曾经在两年半内两次被迫推迟在全国范围内实施上 述标准,原因是中国国有炼油企业生产的柴油质量远远未达到新卡车尾气处理技术所要求的水平。更重要的是,立即提升全国的燃油质量不但有助于“国IV”标准 的立即实施,也将有助于中国未来实施世界最先进的“国VI”标准,国VI标准要求安装尾气过滤装置,清除几乎所有尾气排放颗粒物。


Consider the case of motor vehicle emission control. With China now the global leader in automobile production and sales, emissions from cars, buses, and trucks are a large and growing – and sometimes overlooked – source of air pollution. Of particular concern are long-distance diesel trucks belching black smoke as they travel regionally between factories, distribution centers, and cities. China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection has already issued a policy, “China IV,” that aims to reduce dangerous particulate matter emissions from new trucks by 80 percent. However, MEP has been forced to delay nationwide implementation of these standards twice already—for a total of two and a half years—because the quality of diesel fuel produced by China’s state-owned refineries significantly lags behind what is required for the new truck technologies to function properly. Furthermore, immediate improvements in China’s nationwide fuel quality will not just enable the introduction of “China IV” trucks. They will also facilitate the introduction of future “China VI” vehicles requiring tailpipe filters which eliminate nearly all particle emissions.

I conclude by highlighting that deep and permanent emissions reduction in China would not only save millions of lives, but can be done even while economic growth thrives:

在上世纪70年代,美国也曾面临与中国今天类似的空气污染危机。洛杉矶等城市常常经历短期空气污染飙升,以及同样危险的平时污染物排放的不断走高。但是针对各种国内污染源采取的严格、广泛而永久性的控制措施起到了显著效果。从1980到2010年,美国主要空气污染物排放减少过半,而同期美国国内GDP翻番。空气污染带来的社会成本也大大降低,医院就医费用、因污染降低的劳动生产率、因疾病失去的工作时间、早死亡率、农业生产损失等等成本相加相当可观。美国的相关研究显示,污染治理政策产生的社会效益远远大于实施成本,往往前者是后者的5-10倍甚至更多。 根据世界银行的数据,当前中国由于空气污染导致的经济损失至少相当于GDP的1.2%。这还没有算上损害中国国际形象等隐性成本。诚然,中国过去30年的卓越经济发展成就为每个中国人带来很大福祉,其发展速度也是无与伦比的,但经济的快速发展也产生了副作用,也就是空气污染物水平的飙升。好在,许多发达国家的经验证明了经济可以在空气污染得到控制的同时蓬勃发展。 令人欣慰的是,面对本周严重的空气污染,中国副总理李克强承诺采取更多政府行为。但是,这种政府行为必须要包括大幅度、永久性减少各污染源的污染物排放,强力推行改善燃油质量的政策,以及对中国环保部门的扩权等等措施,只有这样多管齐下,中国“crazy bad” (糟糕透顶)的空气状况才会永远不再重现。


In the 1970s, the United States faced an air pollution crisis not so different from that of China today. Cities like Los Angeles regularly experienced both short-term spikes and dangerously elevated average levels of air pollution. But stringent, wide-reaching, permanent control programs implemented for a variety of sources in the United States have produced dramatic results. From 1980 to 2010, emissions of major air pollutants in the United States were cut by over half—even as GDP more than doubled. And because the societal costs of air pollution—hospital bills, reduced productivity and missed work days due to illness, premature death, agricultural loss, and more—can be exceptionally high, analyses in the US have regularly shown that pollution reduction policies deliver total societal benefits far outweighing their costs—often by a factor of five to ten or even higher. China is no different. The enormous, current economic costs from the health burdens of air pollution in China have been estimated to total at least 1.2 percent of GDP. And this doesn’t even factor in additional “hidden” losses from, for example, damage to China’s international image. China’s past three decades of remarkable development have produced enormous gains for average citizens. But they have also produced dramatic increases in emissions of air pollutants. Fortunately, experience throughout the developed world proves that economic growth can thrive even while air pollution is reduced. This week, China’s Vice Premier Li Keqiang responded to China’s severe pollution with pledges of increased government action. Only if this action includes critical steps such as deep, permanent cuts in emissions from all sources, strong enabling policies like improvements in fuel quality, and broad expansion of China’s environmental authorities, will China’s days of “crazy bad” air finally be gone forever.