Better pollution policies would mean longer lives for millions
With a little political will, Beijing could easily hit its targets for mainland urban average PM2.5 levels by 2030, 20 years ahead of schedule
In the early 1990s, China's former premier, Zhu Rongji, quipped that the move from Shanghai to work in Beijing would take five years off his life.
He was more right than he knew. According to an academic study published this week, air pollution from burning coal has shortened average life expectancies in northern China by five and a half years.
The study blamed government policies that handed out free coal for winter heating in the northern provinces. Those policies have now been scrapped, but as the chart below shows, China's coal consumption has more than tripled since the time Zhu moved from Shanghai to Beijing.
As a result, the mainland's air pollution has got much, much worse, with Beijing and other northern cities frequently blanketed in hazardous concentrations of toxic smog.
Gauging just how bad things are is tricky. The best way is to measure atmospheric concentrations of fine particles less than 2.5 micrometres across. Known as PM2.5, these nasty little smuts penetrate deep into the lungs, causing everything from childhood asthma and bronchitis to heart disease and cancer.
Unfortunately, the official figures for many cities are unreliable. But in a report published last month, analysts at Deutsche Bank used a combination of five different methods to estimate PM2.5 concentrations for 70 Chinese cities during the first quarter of this year.
As the second chart shows, pollution levels ranged from the relatively fresh air of Shenzhen, with 47 micrograms per cubic metre, to the foul miasma which shrouds Shijiazhuang, provincial capital of Hebei, at an astonishing 217 micrograms per cubic metre.
To put those numbers into perspective, the World Health Organization's 2005 guidelines recommend an average annual PM2.5 level of no more than 10 micrograms per cubic metre.
Aware of the health risks, and of popular discontent, the government has pledged to cut pollution. But its targets are modest. Under the plan announced in December, the government aims to reduce PM2.5 concentrations in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region and the Yangtze delta by 6 per cent over three years.
As Deutsche Bank's chief economist, Jun Ma, and his colleagues point out in their report, at that rate it will take 38 years, until 2050 - or two more generations - to bring country-wide PM2.5 levels down to 30 micrograms per cubic metre, still three times the WHO's recommended maximum.
Ma argues that far more ambitious targets are needed. With a little political will, he maintains that China could easily reduce its urban average PM2.5 levels to 30 micrograms per cubic metre by 2030, 20 years ahead of the current schedule.
He calls for taxes on coal to be increased at least five-fold to slow the growth of, and eventually reduce, consumption. On top of that, pollution charges should be doubled or tripled to encourage the use of scrubbers to cut emissions from coal burning.
To slow the growth of vehicle sales, Ma calls for the introduction of a Singapore-style auction system that would make owning a private car punitively expensive. At the same time, city governments should invest heavily in low-pollution public transport such as metro rail systems, while the central government should double its subsidies for clean energy generation.
Best of all, Ma argues his plan is affordable, with the revenue from new taxes paying for the rise in clean energy subsidies.
Although the coal and automobile sectors would suffer, he reckons the economic cost would be offset by the faster expansion of China's new energy and public transport sectors. As a result, Ma says China could still keep up an average growth rate of 6.8 per cent over the next 18 years.
That might be overly optimistic, but if it means living for an extra five years, no one's going to complain.