The California-based climate-science group found air pollution resulted in up to 17% of all China’s deaths, with 38% of the country’s population of 1.3bn breathing air that would be considered ‘unhealthy’ by US standards.

The results of Berkeley Earth’s report estimated around 1.6 million Chinese are killed each year as a result of air pollution, particularly from PM2.5 particulate matter which damages lungs, causes heart attacks, cancer and asthma.

The researchers argue most of the air pollution comes from China’s coal consumption and say switching from dirty coal to nuclear power, natural gas and renewable energy could bring down emissions.

Greatest disaster

Berkeley Earth was founded with the aim of bringing renewed debate to climate science. Paper co-author and Director of Berkeley Earth Richard Muller said: “Air pollution is the greatest environmental disaster in the world today.”

Muller, who has previously called himself “a converted skeptic”, said: “When I was last in Beijing, pollution was at the hazardous level; every hour of exposure reduced my life expectancy by 20 minutes. It’s as if every man, woman and child smoked 1.5 cigarettes each hour.”

The study also found the areas in China most affected by air pollution, but pollution often drifted from larger industrial areas, according to co-author Robert Rohde.

“Beijing is only a moderate source of PM2.5, it receives much of its pollution from distant industrial areas, particularly Shijiazhuang, 200 miles to the southwest. “

Save lives

Air pollution is estimated to kill around three million people worldwide each year. Coal has been touted for its benefits in reducing poverty through industrialisation, but these claims were refuted by Rachel Kyte of the World Bank due to the “huge social cost” of fossil fuels.

Elizabeth Muller, executive director of Berkeley Earth said: “It’s troubling that air pollution is killing so many and yet isn’t on the radar for major environmental organisations in the US or Europe. Many of the same solutions that mitigate air pollution will simultaneously reduce China’s contribution to global warming. We can save lives today and tomorrow.”

King coal

China’s coal boom has started to slow in the past year, with coal consumption falling for the first time due the country’s rapid deployment of renewable energy resources.

China has also stated it will cap its carbon emissions by 2030 as part of its commitment to reducing its reliance on fossil fuels for the climate change talks in Paris.

India is also moving to tackle its air pollution crisis. With 13 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, India is phasing out imported coal and is currently investing billions of dollars in major renewable energy projects.

China’s economy is, however, shifting towards renewable technologies. The Renewable Energy Association has called on the EU to import more solar panels from China, due to a recent drop in the value of China’s currency.

Matt Field

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