Physicist, UC Berkeley; Author, Physics for Future Presidents; Author, Now: The Physics of Time
The Greatest Environmental Disaster in the World Today: Air Pollution

The news stories from China are horrific.  The best estimate is that on average, 4,400 people die every day from air pollution in that country. That’s 1.6 million per year.  Every time I hear of some tragedy that makes headlines, such as a landslide in Shenzhen that killed 200 people, I think to myself, “Yes — and today 4,400 people died of air pollution and it didn’t make the news.”

This is not the old eye-burning throat irritating air pollution of yesterday.  Today’s pollutant is known as PM2.5, particulate matter 2.5 microns and smaller. It is produced by automobiles, by construction, by farm work, but the greatest contributor by far is coal, burned by industry and for electric power production. PM2.5 wasn’t even listed as a major pollutant by the US EPA until 1997. It was present, but jut not fully proven to be as deadly as it is.

We now know that on a bad day in Beijing, such pollution hurts people as much as smoking two packs of cigarettes each day — for every man woman and child who breathes it. Bad air triggers strokes, heart attacks, asthma, and lung cancer. Look at the causes of death in China and you’ll see a remarkable excess of such deaths, despite the fact that obesity is small compared to that in the US.

We know about the health effects from some remarkable studies.  In the US we saw decreases in health problems when factories and coal plants were temporarily shut down; this is the famous “Six Cities Study.” In China, we have the Huai River Study, in which the Chinese policy of giving free coal to households north of the Huai River, but none to the south, resulted in a reduced average lifetime in the north of 5.5 years.

Also remarkable is China’s openness with their air pollution data. Every hour they post online over 1500 measurements of PM2.5  (as well PM10, SO2, NO2, and ozone) all across their country.  China may be a closed country in many ways, but they seem to be crying out seeking help.  At Berkeley Earth we have been downloading all these numbers for the past year and a half, and the patterns of severe pollution are now clear.  It is not confined to cities or basins, but widespread and virtually inescapable. 97% of China’s population breathes what our EPA deems as “unhealthy air “on average.

In contrast, the democracy of India reports few PM2.5  measurements.  I suspect they have them but are simply not making them public.  They do publish results for Delhi, and virtually every time I look, the pollution there is worse than it is in Beijing.

People suggest a switch from coal to solar, but it is too expensive for China to afford. In 2015, solar power contributed less than 0.2% to their energy use, and solar plants are going bankrupt as the Chinese subsidies are withdrawn. Wind is expanding, but its intermittency is a big problem, and the use of energy storage drives up cost.  Hydro is hardly an environmental choice; the 3-Gorges Dam displaced 1.2 million people (voluntarily, the Chinese tell us) and destroyed 13 cities, 140 towns, and 1350 villages. Their new Mekong River dam is expected to wreak havoc throughout Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam. 

The best hopes consist of natural gas, which China has in abundance, and nuclear power, which is under rapid development.  PM2.5 from natural gas is reduced by 1/400 compared to coal — and it reduces greenhouse emissions by a factor of 2 to 3. China is desperately attempting to extract its shale gas, but is doing miserably; the only true master of that technology is the US, where it has triggered an enormous and unexpected drop in the price of both natural as and oil. Nuclear, once despised by the environmentalists, is gaining traction in the US, with many past opponents recognizing that even in the US it offers a way to reduce carbon emissions significantly.  China is surging ahead in nuclear, with 32 new plants planned. Although such plants have a reputation of being expensive, the Chinese know that the high cost is only in the capital cost; that amortized over 25 years, nuclear is as cheap as coal, and much cheaper when you add in the environmental costs.

Air pollution is going to be a growing story in the future. China also has plans, on paper, to double its coal use in the next 15 years. They will cancel those if they can, but they also worry that slower economic growth could threaten their form of government.  As bad as the pollution has been so far, I worry that we ain’t seen nothing yet.

The United States is sharing its nuclear technology, and I expect that in two decades China will be the principle manufacturer of nuclear power plants around the world. But we need to set a better example; we need to show the world that we consider nuclear to be safe.  And we need to share our shale gas technology far more extensively.  Too often we read the pollution headlines, shake our heads, perhaps feel a little schadenfreude towards our greatest economic adversary, and then we forget about it.

Some day global warming may become the primarily threat. But it is air pollution that is killing people now.  Air pollution is the greatest environmental disaster in the world today.