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China’s rapid economic development in recent years has made it one of the world’s largest emitters of carbon dioxide. The amount of CO2 the country releases annually into the atmosphere has a significant impact on global climate change. But to the average Chinese citizen living with these industrial emissions, the effect on the climate is the least of their worries. The air pollution is staggering, and recent studies have estimated that it was responsible for anywhere from 900,000 to 1.2 million deaths in 2013, making it one of China’s largest mortality risk factors.

As such, reducing air pollution has become a high priority issue in Chinese politics. While doing so would have a major positive affect on the health of citizens, it would also have the added effect of reducing the country’s negative impact on the health of the climate. Up until now, however, there has never been a well-developed understanding of how or if the public would support such measures. That’s why Brian Sergi, a Ph.D. student in engineering and public policy, along with Professors Inês Azevedo and Alex Davis, and Peking University’s Tian Xia and Jianhua Xu, conducted a comprehensive study.

The team surveyed residents of 10 Chinese cities and assessed how respondents prioritize factors such as energy source, cost, and reduction of emissions related to climate change or air pollution. The work was published in Ecological Economics.

“This study measures how much respondents would be willing to pay for cleaner electricity,” Sergi says. “We were also curious to explore whether experience with pollution would impact those levels of support. For example, are people who live in more polluted areas willing to pay more to reduce emissions? To address this, we collected actual air quality measurements and compared them to respondents’ preferences from the survey.”

Are people who live in more polluted areas willing to pay more to reduce emissions?

Brian Sergi, Ph.D. Student, Engineering & Public Policy

The team found that respondents actually showed support for reducing emissions related to both climate change and air pollution, and on average were willing to pay more for emissions reductions that addressed both issues simultaneously, compared to reductions that only addressed climate or health separately. Additionally, that willingness to pay for these reductions increased if the respondent lived in a city with higher levels of pollution.

“People on average care about both climate change and air pollution, and are willing to pay more for emissions reductions if they address both of these together,” says Sergi. “Accordingly, if we build in consideration of air pollution and human health when designing strategies for climate mitigation and communicate those benefits to the public, we are likely to see greater public support for those reductions. 

Though so far the team has only studied these preferences in China and the U.S., they believe it is likely that the global population in general is likely to support emissions reductions that have both climate and health benefits, with some variations in strength of support depending on more specific contexts. For example, the relationship between support for emissions reductions for both climate and health reasons is likely to be stronger in countries where air pollution is observably high than in those with visibly “cleaner” air.

“Relatively clean countries like the U.S. are less likely to show this relationship, and may even encounter the opposite trend of regulatory skepticism and pushback such as we’ve seen against the EPA,” says Sergi. “Ironically, the U.S. still incurs large health consequences from air pollution, but because the issue is less visible and salient, it is likely to be less of a driver for most of the population.”