As China has become richer, it's paid a big environmental price. One in five deaths there are now attributable to poor quality air. The country ranks last among 180 for outdoor air pollution, according to a new report. Half the population lives with air unsafe by international standards. China is choking on its success.
Yale's Environmental Performance Index shows how economic development both improves and hurts the environment. Since the turn of the century, about 410 million people have gained access to clean water for the first time, for instance. Millions more people have sanitation and more of the marine environment is being conserved.
But, at the time time, the world is losing Peru-sized tracts of forests each year, 34% of fish stocks are over-exploited, and air quality is getting worse across East Asia and the Pacific region. Bad air now kills five times as many people as poor water, although the latter tends to get more attention from the development community.
"As nations have become wealthier, particularly in Asia, their governments invest in sanitation infrastructure and fewer people are exposed to unsafe water, leading to fewer deaths from waterborne illnesses," the report says. "But as countries develop, increased industrial production, shipping, and automotive transportation foul the air, exposing human populations to dangerous airborne compounds.
The Index rates countries by their environmental health and "ecosystem vitality," using 20 indicators. European countries perform best. Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark and Slovenia top the list, with the U.S. in 26th place (we've dropped since the last report two years ago) and Brazil in 46th. China is 118th and India is 141st.
Altogether, 3.5 billion people—or about half the global population—live with unsafe air quality. One third of those are in East Asia (including half of South Korea). In India, almost 75% of the population is exposed to dangerous levels of fine particulate matter. In fact, its problem is even worse than China's, though the former is more notorious for its pollution issues.