How much longer can you expect to live if you breathe clean air? If you are in Northeast China, it could be three or more years, according to the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI), launched in Beijing last month by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC).
Unlike the well-known Air Quality Index, which highlights how good or bad the air quality is in a particular area, the AQLI shows the cost of inhaling contaminated air at the expected lifetime.
Search for a city on the AQLI map and you can see how much longer residents can expect to live if PM2.5 levels reached the World Health Organization's secure 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air.
The site was developed to give the public and politicians a more direct understanding of the importance of reducing air pollution.
But some academics say it would not be appropriate to base environmental policies too strongly on the link between PM2.5 and life expectancy. If policies do not take into account the differences in wealth between regions and between urban and rural areas, poorer populations can see a long lifetime fall even more.
The true price at PM2.5
AQLI is based on two studies showing that life expectancy decreases by 0.98 years for each 10 microgram increase of PM2.5 per day. Cubic meters.
The index shows the value of China's success in reducing air pollution since 2013. 12% fall in PM2.5 levels between 2013 and 2016 means people in China can expect to live on average six months longer. Michael Greenstone, director of EPIC, calls this success great and unprecedented.
Statistics show that Tianjin, one of China's three most polluted cities in 2013, experienced a drop of 14% in PM2.5 by 2016. If this improvement is maintained, the expectation of the city's 13 million inhabitants will increase by 1.2 years. Henan experienced an even greater improvement over the same period, a decrease in PM2.5 levels of 20%, corresponding to 1.3 years of extra life. Researchers found that if the level of PM2.5 met the World Health Organization's target, the average life expectancy would increase by 2.9 years.
"People say always tackling air pollution is too expensive and politicians and the public will see better evidence before they make further efforts. AQLI uses the most important measure – life expectancy – to show directly how important it is to tackle air pollution, "Greenstone said.
Is a single index useful?
But Jennifer Holdaway, co-director of the Health, Environment and Development Forum (FORHEAD) said: "As an interdisciplinary researcher, I do not think that AQLI offers much new."
She said that seven years ago, before the government took strong action against air pollution, many papers were published showing the link between air quality and health. Now governments at all levels are leaning resources for environmental protection and almost everyone is aware of the health hazards of PM2.5. Therefore, there is little value in preparing new shocking numbers. What is needed in the policies is to consider how to achieve maximum health care for the smallest social costs that better meet the needs of vulnerable populations.
According to a summary report from the FORHEAD team, life expectancy in China is still closely linked to wealth. In the richest cities like Shanghai, Tianjin and Beijing, life expectancy is higher than in the US or South Korea. Meanwhile, the poorest provinces, mostly in western China, have an expected lifetime on a par with the nations of Southeast Asia.
More abundant parts of China have reached an income limit where pollution control is likely to have greater public health benefits than further income increases. But in China's poorer regions, economic growth will still bring the greatest health benefits.
Holdaway added that it is important to ensure that air quality improvement costs in the economically weak regions do not destroy other factors that benefit, such as stable employment or public health investment. If environmental protection competes for resources with other public services, money must be transferred between regions to compensate for the loss.
China urgently needs both to maintain rapid economic growth and improve health by controlling pollution.
In an interview with chinadialogue, Michael Greenstone said that in the end there is no easy option. The policy ultimately lies in the hands of the municipalities. "I strongly suggest a more open attitude that allows local governments who have a full understanding of the situation to experiment to find a balance that is better suited to reality," he said.
Who pays for blue skies?
Jiang Kejuan, a researcher at the National Development and Reform Commission's Energy Research Institute, agrees with Jennifer Holdaway that particular attention should be paid to justice in tackling air pollution.
Since 2016, there has been an attempt to clean the air in northern China by changing household warming from coal to natural gas or electricity. Jiang's research has shown that good progress has been made, but in some cases it will take time for the high costs to be absorbed.
Holdaway told chinadialogue that the powerful environmental policies often come at the expense of future opportunities for poor communities. For example, the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region's most polluting industries – steel and cement manufacturers – are also the largest employers. Reducing output or closing plants means that many workers must be released. During the transition, new high-tech or service jobs can be created, but the redundant workers do not have training or skills to exploit.
"Historically, we see similar instances in Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom as they de-industrialized, with increased inequality and job losses for entire families and future generations," Holdaway said.