JPRI Critique Vol. XXI No. 8 (September 2015)
Killer Air: Analysis of Air Pollution in China
by Berkeley Earth



In August 2015 Berkeley Earth released a study showing that air pollution kills an average of 4,000 people every day in China, 17% of all China’s deaths. For 38% of the population, the average air they breathe is “unhealthy” by U.S. standards. With unprecedented detail, the sources of pollution throughout China are mapped directly from ground-level measurements.





The most harmful pollution is PM2.5, particulate matter 2.5 microns and smaller. This penetrates deeply into lungs and triggers heart attacks, stroke, lung cancer, and asthma. “Beijing is only a moderate source PM2.5; it receives much of its pollution from distant industrial areas, particularly Shijiazhuang, 200 miles to the southwest,” says Robert Rohde, coauthor of the paper. Since the sources aren’t local, reducing pollution for the 2022 Olympics may prove difficult.

The paper has been accepted for publication in the refereed journal PLOS ONE. Berkeley Earth analyzed hourly measurements of 1500 ground stations covering 4 months. The fact that sources of PM2.5 match those of sulfur implies that most of the pollution comes from coal. Worldwide, air pollution kills over three million people per year—more than AIDS, malaria, diabetes or tuberculosis.

“Air pollution is the greatest environmental disaster in the world today,” says Richard Muller, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of physics and Scientific Director of Berkeley Earth, coauthor of the paper. “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, women, and child smoked 1.5 cigarettes each hour,” he said

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 organizations in the U.S. or Europe.” She says that solutions include greater use of scrubbers, increased energy efficiency, and switching from coal to natural gas, nuclear power, and renewables. “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.”

Berkeley Earth hopes to expand geographic coverage to include more of Asia, the United States, and Europe, and to study how sources of air pollution change with time. For the downloadable images accompanying the scientific paper or to view the movie of mapped air pollution over time, see: http://berkeleyearth.org/air-pollution-overview/ .


Berkeley Earth Berkeley Earth was conceived by Richard and Elizabeth Muller in early 2010 when they found merit in some of the concerns of global warming skeptics. They organized a group of scientists to reanalyze the Earth’s surface temperature record, and to address the major concerns of global warming skeptics in a systematic and objective manner. They published their initial findings in 2012. Since then Berkeley Earth has pursued further scientific investigations on the nature of climate change, a major education and communications program to strengthen the scientific consensus on global warming, and work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the places that will be the worst emitters over the next 30 years. One key element of this latter program will be to forge a new coalition between industry and environmental groups for the use of cleanly-produced natural gas as a bridging fuel to slow global warming over the next few decades—with a particular focus on China. For more information or to schedule an interview, contact Elizabeth Muller:liz@berkeleyearth.org; (+1) 510-517-9936.

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