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PM2.5 Related Premature Deaths Worldwide Embodied in International Trade


On March 30th, an international collaborative study co-led by Qiang Zhang and Kebin He at Tsinghua University and Jintai Lin at Peking University was published in Nature, which revealed for the first time the global premature deaths from ambient PM2.5 pollution as a result of economic trade and atmospheric transport.

According to the estimate of the World Health Organization, ambient fine particle pollution (PM2.5) leads to more than 3 million premature deaths worldwide. PM2.5 is produced from emissions out of economic activities producing goods and services to supply consumption. PM2.5 pollution is often thought as a local or regional problem, with only a small amount being transported in the atmosphere to long distances. The current economic globalization means that production of goods and associated emissions is transferred from regions consuming to regions producing those goods. This results in significant redistribution of emissions and pollution worldwide, with important consequences on air quality and human health.

Starting from 2012, Tsinghua University and Peking University co-led an international collaborative team to analyze the atmospheric environmental problems related to consumption and trade, particularly on how trade activities are coupled with atmospheric transport processes to lead to globalizing air pollution and resulting environmental and climate impacts. To date, the team has addressed a variety of trade-related questions, including emissions and pollution embodied in China’s international and inter-provincial trade, and the impacts of global multi-lateral trade on aerosol climate forcing. The results have been published in PNAS (Cozzarelli Prize winner), Nature Geoscience, Environmental Science & Technology, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, and other journals.

In this Nature paper, the team analyzed the impacts of global trade and atmospheric transport on PM2.5 related premature deaths worldwide. They found that PM2.5 pollution embodied in global trade is associated with about 760,000 mortalities worldwide in 2007, contributing 22% of all PM2.5 related deaths. Trade-related pollution transfer is much more effective than atmospheric transport in causing redistribution of premature deaths. China, India and other developing countries are net exporters of goods, and the developed countries are net importers. As a result, trade means increased pollution and deaths in the developing countries and reduced deaths in the developed countries. Atmospheric transport means that both production and consumption by a particular region leads to global PM2.5 pollution and mortalities (Fig. 1). This study reveals the link between production, consumption, trade, pollution transfer and public health, and it calls for improved global collaboration to reduce pollution by accounting for the role of consumption and trade in redistributing pollution.

Professors Qiang Zhang and Kebin He at Tsinghua University, Professor Jintai Lin at Peking University, and Professor Steven Davis at the University of California, Irvine, are co-corresponding authors of the paper. Professor Qiang Zhang and his postdoc Xujia Jiang and graduate student Dan Tong are the joint first authors. The study was funded by NSFC and the 973 Project.


Figure 1. Global distribution of premature deaths due to ambient PM2.5 pollution as a result of production (left) and consumption (right) of goods and services in China, Western Europe, the United States and India. Source: Zhang et al., 2017, Nature.