How a centralised policy of free coal for the north helped reduce air quality

October 3, 2013 by Timothy Beardson

September’s proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences contains a research paper by Chen, Ebenstein et al examining the unintended consequences of one of China’s long-standing central economic policies – cheap coal for the northern regions. It shows that good intentions by themselves are not enough.

Northern China is consistently colder than the South. The largely West-East Huai river broadly demarcates a northern China – where average temperatures in January are often well below zero centigrade – from a warmer lower half.

Chen et al describe a centralised policy from the 1950s to the 1980s to provide free coal for heating fuel north of the Huai river. Unfortunately, coal combustion is known to be associated with air pollution, “and in particular emission of particulate matter that can be extremely harmful to human health”. Furthermore, much of China’s coal is of a particularly low quality, frequently high in sulphur. The policy did not encourage the use of pollution abatement equipment.

The paper uses large scale Chinese data sources which are called “the most comprehensive data file ever compiled on mortality and air pollution in China or any other developing country”.

Armed with these data sources, the authors measure the presence of total suspended particulates (TSPs) per cubic metre of air space. In 1981-2000, TSP levels were more than double China’s national standard of 200/m3. In fact, they were five times the levels obtaining in the United States before the passage of the Clean Air Act there in 1970. The South of China had a TSP level of around 335, but in the northern part the level was particularly high at over 500.

Measurement from Chinese data sources showed cardio-respiratory mortality closely reflected these differences in air pollution concentration. One conclusion drawn from the correlation is that long term exposure to an additional 100/m3 of TSPs is “is associated with a reduction in life expectancy at birth of about 3.0 years”. The 55 per cent higher levels of TSPs in northern China can be seen as causing over five and a half years of shorter life span among the inhabitants.

For a population of 500 million, this equates to over 2.75bn lost years of life. The researchers venture to suggest that “these results may help explain why China’s explosive economic growth has led to relatively anaemic growth in life expectancy”.

Although the policy eventually ended with the shrinking of the socialist state, the impact continued. Respiratory illnesses can take their toll over prolonged periods. Furthermore, if people are reared on coal boilers, they will often continue using them after subsidies cease.

As a result there remains a distinction in pollution levels. The authors observe that even in 2003-2008 there was a 26 per cent higher level of the more pernicious PM10 micro-particles north of the Huai river.

China, and particularly northern China, is beset by pollution from different sources but here the discussion is focussed on one specific generator. We should also note that the difference in TSP concentration north and south of the Huai river is not reflected in that of sulphur dioxide or nitrous oxide as they travel much further.

Furthermore, there has been both a lack of data on environmental quality and even a deliberate official tendency to obfuscate environmental problems. Global Times, a Communist Party-owned newspaper, said in January that “in future, the government should publish truthful environmental data to the public. Let society participate in the process of solving the problem” and “as long as the government changes its previous method of covering up the problems and instead publishes the facts, society will know who should be blamed”. These points seem to state that officials have consistently sought to hide bad news and given dishonest data.

The problems which arise from dishonest data reports are twofold: they might reduce the chance of constructive criticism from the public and second, they can even deceive officials into underestimating the extent of the problems. As a result a bad situation can deteriorate.

Of course, on the known data, in a socialist society it probably sounds appealing to subsidise fuel for people in the cold North to have winter heating. However, it amply demonstrates why central planning, with the best will in the world, is almost guaranteed to overlook critical factors.

What does the research tell us as far as lessons for the future? It is in a sense a morality tale showing how well-meaning officials cannot necessarily conjure a better society over the heads of ordinary citizens.

The vaster a state-mandated project is, the more frequent and critical an audit it needs to check on unanticipated, adverse consequences. However, human nature in a socialist state tends to the opposite conclusion: that the more official emotion and public money is invested in a project, the less public scrutiny it should incur. The Three Gorges Dam is an excellent example of this.

There is something stifling about officials in a capital city deciding what is good for areas of a country. Often – in an authoritarian society – these policies cannot be questioned. We should hope that the habit of grandiose centralised policies in China will gradually fade into the background and be replaced by initiatives driven by those who live in regions and localities.

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