The BBC recently reported on work carried out by researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology on the causes of severe pollution haze incident in China in 2013.
The researchers dubbed this incident an “airpocalypse” as it affected about 70% of the 74 major cities in the region. The effect of the haze was to subject over 350 million people to air quality that far exceeded the daily safe PM2.5(small particles with a diameter of 2.5 micrometres) standards.
A PM2.5 particle is about 5% of the width of a human hair and are emitted primarily by car exhausts and the burning of fossil fuels in power stations and factories. Studies have shown that exposure to this type of air pollution can harm the brain, accelerating cognitive aging, and may even increase risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
The alarming finding from this study is that the deadly smog was caused by the combination of two different destructive trends; air pollution and climate change. Arctic ice melting at the fastest rate ever recorded influenced weather systems that caused high snowfall in Siberia. This in turn shifted regional air circulation which contained air pollution in the Eastern Plains for a prolonged period.
The conditions in China underline a more fundamental truth; that the environment connects us all, and that if we undermine it – in this case by inducing climate change through the emission of greenhouse gases – it will affect human lives.
Air quality is not just a Chinese issue. Many cities throughout the world are now working to reduce the health impacts from particulates, oxides of Nitrogen and other pollutants. However, the situation in China represents a compounding of unregulated impacts which combine to create an impending economic crisis. Self-inflicted poor health diminishes the productivity of the workforce, visitor numbers to cities, and even mobility through poor visibility. But in the longer-term, the health-care costs (either to the State, or the families that set aside their own lives to look after incapacitated loved ones) will be crippling to the economy.
It is for this reason that RealWorth uses Ecosystem Services Analysis and other sustainable valuation methods to help those who work with us to understand the full implications of investment decisions in the built environment. Often, unintended consequences of policies, programmes and projects occur because the social and environmental change they produce are overlooked. Usually, the direct impacts are unclear until the implications for the wider local economy are revealed by sustainable return on investment work. In China, today, the link between air quality and unsustainable investment is as clear as the atmosphere is opaque.
Read the full report (with lots of technical facts and figures) here