AIR pollution from coal burning cuts the life expectancy of China’s northern residents by an average of five-and-a half-years, a new international study has found.
The report yesterday forced China’s environment minister to admit his department was one of the world’s four most embarrassing, but he claimed overlapping functions hampered its operation.
Zhou Shengxian’s comments were the latest in a string of blunt admissions by Chinese leaders that the country still has a long way to go in tackling pollution.
Social unrest spurred by environmental complaints is also becoming common across China, to the government’s alarm.
“I’ve heard that there are four major embarrassing departments in the world and that China’s ministry of environmental protection is one of them,” state news agency Xinhua’s official microblog account quoted Mr Zhou as saying.
“Our environmental work involves many departments. Many of the functions are overlapping,” Mr Zhou said, adding that water, land and carbon output were all managed by different ministries.
Despite Xinhua later removing a reference to Mr Zhou’s remarks describing the agency as an embarrassment, his comments spread widely on China’s other state media microblogs.
Mr Zhou, a two-term environment minister, has presided over China’s worst pollution in recent memory.
He received among the fewest votes from members in the race for the cabinet at this year’s meeting of the National People’s Congress, a largely rubber-stamp parliament body.
Mr Zhou said he was worried about the public health impact of dire pollution contaminating the air, soil and water.
“The current challenge facing the environmental [authorities]is how to properly deal with the environmental problems caused by economic development,” he said.
China routinely vows to clean up pollution, but little is ever done, mainly due to lack of enforcement in the face of a drive for corporate profits.
Many Chinese have expressed disquiet over the scarcity of available information about the environment. One lawyer seeking access to soil pollution data was told by Mr Zhou’s ministry he could not have it since it was an official secret.
The revelation that air pollution is shortening lives highlights the disastrous legacy of a policy to provide free coal for domestic heating in the north, the international study by researchers from China, Israel and America revealed yesterday.
The policy gave free coal for fuel boilers to heat homes and offices to cities north of the Huai river, which divides China into north and south. It was in effect for much of the 1950-80 period of central planning, and, though discontinued after 1980, it has left a legacy in the north of heavy coal burning, which releases particulate pollutants that can harm human health.
The researchers collected data for 90 cities, from 1981 to 2000, on the annual daily average concentration of total suspended particulates (in China, particles that are 100 micrometres or less in diameter) emitted from sources including power stations, construction sites and vehicles.
The researchers estimated the impact on life expectancies using mortality data from 1991-2000. They found that in the north, the concentration of particulates was 184 microgrammes per cubic metre – or 55 per cent higher than in the south, and life expectancies were 5.5 years lower on average across all age ranges.