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Study: China's air pollution kills 1.6 million a year

In recent years, China's economy has grown rapidly, but at a price. Factories and heavy industries pollute the air at the cost of people’s health and the environment.

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    A woman holds a child as travelers wait for the highway from Beijing to China's Hebei Province to reopen after it was closed due to low visibility, on a heavy polluted morning August 3, 2015.
    Damir Sagolj/Reuters
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A recent study has attributed a startling new death toll to China’s toxic air problem. 

A paper by researchers from Berkeley Earth, a non-profit climate research organization based in California, indicates that air pollution is killing an average of 4,000 people in China per day. That’s about 1.6 million every year, or 17% of all deaths.

Robert Rohde, the study's lead author, told The Associated Press that 38 percent of the Chinese population lives in an area with a long-term air quality average that the US Environmental Protection Agency calls “unhealthy.”

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“It’s a very big number,” Rohde said. “It’s a little hard to wrap your mind around the numbers. Some of the worst in China is to the southwest of Beijing.”

Rohde notes that, unlike the United States, air pollution in China is worst in the winter because of burning coal to heat homes and weather conditions that keeps dirty air closer to the ground.

The research, which is set to be published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One, looked at four months of data from 1,500 ground stations across China, South Korea, and Taiwan.

Time reports that “the most deadly pollutant comes in the form of tiny particles derived from places like electric power plants and fossil fuels used in homes and factories for heating.”

Last month, the Chinese capital of Beijing was awarded the 2022 Winter Olympics by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) defying concerns about its air quality and lack of natural snow.

As China drummed up support at home to host the Olympics, activist groups called on the IOC to reject the Chinese bid over its toxic air pollution.

In the final days of the campaign, Beijing’s Mayor Wang Anshun gave assurances that major steps had been taken since his city hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, with a series of coal power plants closed to bring back the city's blue skies and white clouds. “All our efforts are moving Beijing towards a clean-energy future,” Mr. Wang said.

Indeed, in recent years, Chinese authorities have made major plans to clean up its carbon-heavy energy supply, but some energy experts find it too ambitious, as The Christian Science Monitor reported.

Last November, China committed to peak its emissions of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 as part of a non-binding agreement with the United States. Some say that timeline is overly ambitious, given the sheer amount of time and money it takes to dramatically overhaul a sprawling energy infrastructure that is heavily dependent on carbon-heavy coal.  

“Anyone who says these targets are just business as usual and will be easy for China to meet, you are kidding yourself if you’re aware [of] how much coal is still being used in China and will continue to be burned in the absence of incentives to change,” said Joanna Lewis, associate professor of science, technology and international affairs at Georgetown University.

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