With 4,200 people in Taiwan dying each year as a result of transborder air pollution from China, the Chinese government needs to face up to the serious health costs of its breakneck economic development or risk having its success undone.
With thick winter smog blanketing parts of China in the past few weeks, the health implications of the country’s coal-fired power plants and factories has once again returned to public attention, but while China’s air pollution is well-documented, the transborder effect of the problem on its East Asian neighbors is less well-known.
In recent years, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea have complained about air pollutants traveling from China. However, without data showing the effects of transborder air pollution, it is hard to build a case to call for action.
However, Chinese University of Hong Kong researchers have shown that 22 percent of premature death in Taiwan is caused by air pollution. An average of 4,200 deaths per year are caused by air pollution from China. This groundbreaking data is not only evidence of the scale and effect of transborder air pollution, but it also lends weight to long-standing grievances from China’s neighbors.
The high cost of transborder air pollution looks set to become a key item in cross-strait relations. Government cooperation is necessary to address these far-reaching health and environmental implications. Failure to do so would only stoke friction in what is already a volatile region.
However, to fundamentally roll back pollution, multilateral, long-term efforts would be needed to tackle the issue at source; China. Pollution is a severe problem within China too and its achievements in economic development and increased living standards might be undone unless a resolute, yet nuanced approach to address the problem is found.
According to the university study, outdoor air pollution causes about 870,000 premature deaths in China every year, of which an average of 18 percent are attributed to domestic transborder air pollution. Northern China is the largest contributor to the problem with 41 percent of the health implications caused by emissions from the region which are then borne by other regions.
There are several possible options that might compel Chinese regional governments to act. If meeting emission reduction targets for PM2.5 — an indicator of airborne particles measuring 2.5 micrometers or less, that are small enough to penetrate the deepest part of the lungs — is officially considered an achievement, it could motivate regional governments to adopt concrete measures for more effective air pollution controls.
Indeed, what is at stake in Chinese domestic politics should go beyond mere competition over annual GDP growth targets between regions and include tangible actions to mitigate air pollution.
On the other hand, the Chinese central government could tax heavy-polluting regions, effectively making them pay a bill for their damage. Applying the principle of “the polluter pays” taxes can then be allocated back to regions hardest hit by domestic transborder air pollution and invested in healthcare to treat pollution-related diseases, such as lung cancer, cardiovascular problems and respiratory illnesses.
However, while improved healthcare for pollution-related illnesses are much needed, taxes should also be spent on scientific research to generate “clean” production technology for a long-term solution.
There should be more control over what is a major national problem in China. This political commitment is crucial as the nation deals with the complex challenge of managing the myriad environmental consequences of its rapid economic growth on the back of heavy industry and development. At the same time, regional governments in China have to weigh the costs and rewards of their actions — or inaction — for air pollution that occurs under their watch.
Understanding transborder air pollution and the resultant health implications is important to the development of national and international environmental policy measures. It is a challenge that the Chinese government can and should rise up to.
Steve Yim is a professor in the department of geography and resource management at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
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