Coal’s High Cost in China: 2.5 Billion Years of Life Expectancy
I’m certain there are wing nuts out there who will think the equivalent of “Good! - fewer [insert anti-Asian slur here] to compete with and more cheap overseas goods.”
Coal is the least efficient of the fossil fuels in terms of the amount of energy gained vs. CO2 released. Burning it also releases numerous toxic chemicals and particulates, which can exact a cost on a country’s population in terms of reduced life expectancy and increased health costs. Figuring out the exact cost of coal use, however, is challenging because of a combination of different pollution controls and the mobility of the population.
Thanks to an unusual combination of policies (some completely unrelated to pollution), China has accidentally provided the opportunity to put an exact number on the human cost of coal use. And that number turns out to be staggering: 5.5 years of reduced life expectancy that, when spread over the half-billion people of northern China, means a loss of 2.5 billion life-years.
The Huai River line
There are two key policies that turned China into a giant natural experiment on the impact of coal. The first is that, until recent years, China has had laws in place that severely limited the mobility of its citizenry. People didn’t tend to move around, so they continued to live (and die) near the site of their exposure. That makes lifetime exposures easy to estimate, and it ensures that local health and mortality records could be directly connected to these exposures.
Second, starting in 1950, the Chinese government divided the country along the Huai River, which roughly traces the line where winter temperatures are, on average, freezing—and north of that line, everyone was eligible for free, coal-powered heating. The line cuts across a variety of provinces and political divisions, so there’s little else about China that’s likely to be divided in the same way.
China uses coal for a variety of purposes beyond heating—with the result that, as the authors of a new study note, current particulate levels in China are five times what they were in the US back in the 1960s, prior to the passage of the Clean Air Act. (These levels are, incidentally, twice the limits allowed under Chinese law.) Despite the existing overall high levels of pollution across the country, the addition of this much heating-related coal burning had a significant impact on the air quality of northern China over the last half century. By 2000, as one crossed the Huai River line, the total particulates in each cubic meter of air jumped by nearly 200 micrograms.