BEIJING—A toxic cloud of smog over China's cities caused by exhaust from millions of new cars and belching coal-fired power plants is exacting a major public health toll, experts said Monday.
"About one-fifth of urban Chinese now breathe heavily polluted air," said Zhang Lijun, vice minister of the State Environmental Protection Administration.
Zhang said improving air quality in 210 medium and large cities across China from "polluted" to "good" levels could save 178,000 lives a year.
China has given rapid economic growth priority over environmental protection during several decades of industrialization and now pays a severe price for its heavy air pollution, experts said at a conference sponsored by Chinese, U.S. and European Union environmental agencies.
Fine particles and other pollutants spewed into the air from China's 2,300 or so coal-fired power plants aggravate respiratory ailments and "are extremely poisonous to children's lung functions," Zhang told several hundred delegates at the conference.
While China is slowing the rate of its air quality deterioration by curbing industrial pollution, a car craze is retarding chances for further improvement.
Twenty-seven million vehicles clog China's roads, and each year 4 million to 5 million new cars and trucks join the fleet, said Li Xinmin, deputy director of the state administration's pollution control department.
China has chalked up average economic growth of 9.4 percent a year over the past two decades, requiring a steady increase in coal to produce electricity. Coal provides 67 percent of China's energy. To keep pace, producers are extracting dirtier coal, Li said.
"The quality of coal is deteriorating," Li said. "The sulfur content has reached 1 percent. More sulfur is being released into the air."
Sulfur dioxide is a major pollutant and contributor to greenhouse gases blamed for global warming. The United States surpasses China as a greenhouse gas producer, but if current trends continue, China will rise to No. 1 by 2025.
China reports daily on the air quality of some 340 cities. Since the year 2000, cities with air quality listed as moderate to heavily polluted fell from 115 to 69 cities last year, according to SEPA statistics. At the same time, the number of once-clean cities rising to "lightly polluted" status increased from 100 to 141 cities.
"Even as the number of cities with very bad air quality declines, the number of cities with good air quality is also declining," Li said.
Acid rain now falls on 30 percent of China's territory, caused mainly by 26 million tons of sulfur dioxide emissions released largely from power plants, Zhang said.
European and U.S. experts said air pollution could be turned around quickly in China without crimping economic growth by rapidly investing in clear-air technologies.
In 1952, the great smog of London killed 4,000 people in one year, and at a peak in 1980 Europe was pumping 35 million tons of sulfur dioxide emissions into the air, causing forests in Scandinavia to die from acid rain, said Franz Jessen, deputy head of the European Union's office in China. Since then, London's air quality has improved dramatically, and Europe's greenhouse gas emissions have fallen 93 percent, he said.
In the United States, air pollution has decreased by more than 50 percent since 1970, and $50 billion in pollution controls at 1,300 coal-fired power plants is improving air quality and paying for itself "many times over in health savings," said James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
As the three-day conference began, Beijing tallied fairly high levels of air pollution, with visibility of about five blocks along city streets, definitely not one of the "clean air" days the city government is hoping to promote in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games.
Beijing shoots for 227 "clean air" days a year; it had achieved 197 by Monday.
But with winter approaching, many buildings and homes are firing up coal-fired furnaces for heat, worsening air quality. Vendors on coal-laden cargo-bearing tricycles already are cruising city streets selling coal bricks.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2007