Tackling air pollution in China

A recent study estimates that about 1.6 million people in China die each year — roughly 4,000 a day — from heart, lung, and stroke disorders due to poor air quality. Most of the nation’s lethal air pollution, including headline-grabbing toxins such as fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and ground-level ozone (O3), is produced in its coal-dominated energy and industrial sectors. But a substantial and growing contributor to the problem is road transportation; as private vehicle ownership and freight traffic increase, so, too, do ambient concentrations of pollutants from gasoline and diesel fuel exhaust.

Concerned about ongoing health risks linked to high concentrations of air pollutants, China has recently taken measures that are expected to improve its air quality. These include an economy-wide climate policy that puts a price on carbon dioxide (CO2) and lowers emissions that degrade air quality, and tailpipe and fuel-economy standards that target vehicle emissions only. What remains to be seen is how effective these measures will be in reducing China’s air pollution problem.  

Addressing that question head-on, a new study in the journal Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment evaluates the combined impact on China’s air pollution levels of implementing both an economy-wide climate policy and vehicle emissions standards. Using an energy-economic model, a team of researchers from MIT, Tsinghua University, and Emory University finds that by 2030, these policies will act on different sectors in a coordinated fashion to address both climate change and air pollution. Implementation of China’s current vehicle emissions standards — or more stringent versions thereof — will considerably reduce road transportation’s contribution to the nation’s total air pollution, while an economy-wide price on CO2 will significantly lower air pollution from other sectors of the economy through incentivizing a transition to less carbon-intensive energy sources such as natural gas and renewables.

“In any province, transportation produces at most a quarter of all emissions that cause air pollution in China,” says Paul Natsuo Kishimoto, the paper’s lead author, a PhD candidate at the MIT Institute for Data, Systems and Society, and research assistant at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. “Improving fuel economy and emissions control technology on new vehicles and replacing old cars, trucks, and buses would sharply reduce the transportation sector’s share of the problem — but have no effect on the rest of the country’s air pollution emissions. On the other hand, a climate policy would impact not only that transport share but everything else. An economy-wide carbon price would help reduce carbon emissions throughout the country, but especially in non-transportation sectors where it’s far less expensive to cut emissions. Both approaches are necessary and complimentary.”

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