Skip to main content

Seeing Through the Smog: Promoting Sino-U.S. Cooperation on Air Quality, Environmental Health, and Climate Change

China's three decades as the world's fastest growing economy have brought it an unfortunate primacy in two other categories: world's highest annual incidence of premature deaths triggered by air pollution and greatest emitter of carbon dioxide.

Date & Time

May. 12, 2009
9:00am – 11:00am

Seeing Through the Smog: Promoting Sino-U.S. Cooperation on Air Quality, Environmental Health, and Climate Change

China's three decades as the world's fastest growing economy have brought it an unfortunate primacy in two other statistical categories: it is estimated to have the world's highest annual incidence of premature deaths triggered by air pollution and to be the greatest emitter of carbon dioxide. Despite slowing economic growth and some improvements in air quality levels and controls, the expected steep increases in China's consumption of energy over the next few decades have troubling implications for both local air quality and global climate change.

It is now widely recognized that efforts to mitigate climate change could have important implications for air quality and visa-versa. The efficacy and efficiency of policies to address both air pollution and climate change can be increased through close attention to their impacts on human health. Globally, health concerns have proven vital elements in public demands on environmental and energy policies; accelerating government action. Moreover, health problems from air pollution represent an important component of any comprehensive assessment of the relative costs and benefits of competing and alternative actions.

In this May 12, 2009 CEF meeting, Robert O'Keefe of the Health Effects Institute,
Denise Mauzerall of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, and Junfeng (Jim) Zhang of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-School of Public Health discussed local air pollution problems in China and potential climate change solutions of global relevance.

Gathering Quality Data

Robert O'Keefe of the Health Effects Institute (HEI) started off the talk by explaining the recent developments of the Public Health and Air Pollution in Asia (PAPA) initiative. PAPA is an HEI initiative that focuses on better understanding the effects of air pollution on health in Asia. Some of its chief goals included building the capacity of local scientists and communicating quality data to policymakers.

The PAPA initiative consists of both an intensive academic review of the current literature as well as on the ground investigator teams. On the ground, research teams headed by qualified international scientists partnered with local experts and liaisons in Asia. This ensured accurate data as well as international cooperation. The teams gathered air quality data and simultaneously transferred skills and knowledge to local experts. The results were combined to create a database that would be available to both international and domestic researchers

One of the main goals of the study was to demonstrate that environmental health data in western countries, which has been collected for far longer than in Asia, could be seen as relevant to Asian populations. The key to achieving this was showing that the negative effects of air pollution are similar across populations. The PAPA studies to date have indeed revealed that air pollution affects people across the world quite similarly. This result not only allowed for more trust in western studies, but also established good quality and reliable domestic data for Asian scientists and policymakers.

The ultimate goal of these partnerships, according to O'Keefe, was to ensure that the science did not simply sit on the shelf and would be used by local and global policymakers and scientists and improve international collaboration on environmental health studies.

Seeing Through The Smog

Junfeng (Jim) Zhang discussed the Beijing Olympics and the public health results of the Beijing government's pollution reduction efforts. To significantly improve air quality in Beijing the municipal government planted tress, reduced heavy industry like cement, steel and refineries, stopped construction projects, implemented pollution control measures in smoke stacks, instituted limited driving days, and banned the use of heavy-polluting cars. However, the efficacy of these measures was uncertain because air pollution in Beijing does not necessarily originate in Beijing.

To observe the effects of these measures, the Health Effects of Air Pollution Reduction Trial or HEART study was funded by HEI, NIH, the China Natural Science Foundation, and the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau. The study tested actual air pollution data as well as biological indicators of pollutants in groups of volunteers. The bio-indicators were measures of such bodily statistics as exhaled nitric oxide and malondialdehyde (MDA) levels, which help researchers link air pollution and bodily health. The overall results indicated that the clean air efforts during the Beijing Olympics could be directly correlated to increased bodily health.

Potential Climate Benefits

Denise Mauzerall began her discussion explaining that air pollutants and climate change are not necessarily directly correlated. For example, while all air pollutants are hazardous to public health, some have a net cooling effect while some have a net warming effect on the climate. While the ultimate goal would be to eliminate all air pollutants to protect health, a focus on reducing pollutants that have a net warming effect would benefit both public health and climate stabilization.

Primary examples of such pollutants are black carbon and ozone. Black carbon has been shown to result in premature mortality and cardiopulmonary disease and ozone has been linked to significant reductions in crop yields and respiratory problems. Both ozone and black carbon have a net warming effect and reducing the quantity emitted would have benefits for not only public health, but climate stabilization as well.

Black carbon—which is mainly generated by diesel engines and coal plants—is not airborne for long periods of time like CO2. Thus, climate cooling from black carbon reduction would be seen quickly and would have significant impact. Implementing black carbon reduction technologies in automobiles and coal plants would be a major step towards improving public health and achieving global climate benefits. The need to reduce black carbon is going to be even greater in China as the country has been successful in dropping sulfur dioxide emissions; a pollutant that has a cooling effect on climate but poses a major threat to human health.

Ozone is not only responsible for premature mortality, but also significant reductions in crop yields. Methane emissions which react with nitrous oxides form ozone. A reduction of methane thus would yield a reduction in ozone, which would result in both public health and global climate stabilization benefits. To conclude, Mauzerall underscored that while CO2 should remain our largest focus, drastic improvements in greenhouse gas mitigation could be made with the reduction of other common air pollutants like ozone and black carbon.

Drafted by Peter Marsters and edited by Jennifer L. Turner.


Hosted By

China Environment Forum

Since 1997, the China Environment Forum's mission has been to forge U.S.-China cooperation on energy, environment, and sustainable development challenges. We play a unique nonpartisan role in creating multi-stakeholder dialogues around these issues.  Read more

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Maternal Health Initiative

Life and health are the most basic human rights, yet disparities between and within countries continue to grow. No single solution or institution can address the variety of health concerns the world faces. By leveraging, building on, and coordinating the Wilson Center’s strong regional and cross-cutting programming, the Maternal Health Initiative (MHI) promotes dialogue and understanding among practitioners, scholars, community leaders, and policymakers.  Read more

Event Feedback