China Turns the Tide in "War Against Pollution"

By Mia Taylor August 30, 2023

China shows rare success in battle against air pollution, leading to a significant global reduction and increasing lifespan in the country.

A decade ago, the Chinese capital, Beijing, was shrouded in a thick haze of yellow and gray smog, so dense it masked the city from view. Residents confined themselves indoors, wore face masks, and deployed high-rated air purifiers to evade the dire air quality that later came to be called Beijing’s “air-pocalypse.” The air pollution was so hazardous that it triggered the Chinese leaders into initiating a pricey "war against pollution." In 2021, substantial strides have been made.

The latest Air Quality Life Index report, generated by the University of Chicago's Energy Policy Institute, reveals that China's pollution levels had dropped by 42% from their 2013 highs. Not only is China an uncommon example in the region where pollution is escalating in some parts like South Asia, but globally, this significant reduction in pollution levels can be attributed to China's progress. Without China's pollution control measures, the global average air pollution may have risen substantially.

The everyday Chinese citizen now has an expanded lifespan by 2.2 years, thanks to this improvement. While some Chinese cities still make the list of the world's most polluted, many have been topped by South Asian and Middle Eastern cities. In 2021, Beijing witnessed its best monthly air quality since record-keeping began in 2013. According to state media, the nation's environment minister proclaimed, “The ‘Beijing blue’ has gradually become our new normal.”

However, the report underlines that the struggle is far from over as China still ranks as the 13th most polluted country in the world. Furthermore, Beijing's particulate pollutants, these are minuscule but extremely harmful pollutants, still measure 40% higher than the United States' most polluted county.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. China is proof that with concerted efforts from the government and its citizens, progressive changes are attainable. For instance, from 2014, the Chinese government has restricted car numbers on roads in major cities, prohibited new coal plants in highly polluted areas, cut emissions, shut down existing plants, and curtailed high-polluting industrial activities.

Turning our focus elsewhere, South Asia is now the "global pollution epicenter," hosting the four most polluted countries – Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan – accounting for nearly a quarter of the world’s population. In these countries, the average resident loses five years of their lifespan due to pollution. The situation is particularly severe in India where data shows that the risk is accentuated greatly due to population density and the sheer number of people residing in heavily polluted urban areas.

While it's clear that air pollution has reduced markedly in China, it has sharply risen in South Asia to the point of surpassing the life expectancy effects of tobacco use or unsafe water. Contributing factors in these countries are many, including significant population growth, economic advancement, and industrialization in the past two decades.

Attempts at slashing the pollution have begun in these regions. However, with the difference in economic muscle and infrastructure, the task might be considerably more challenging. It's a similar uphill battle for Africa, another pollution hotspot. While there exist sizeable global funds to help African countries fight health risks like HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis, nothing of the sort exists for fighting pollution.

Concerted efforts from international organizations and private donors are crucial to filling these gaps, particularly in establishing reliable and publicly accessible air quality data, and laying the needed infrastructure. As of now, such assistance is sorely lacking.