The Independent By Clifford Coonan in Beijing Published: 04 July 2007
China's poisoned air rose higher on the political agenda yesterday after reports that it forced the World Bank to censor a study for fear that one of its findings - that 750,000 people die of pollution-related illness each year - might stoke social unrest.
The Chinese capital has also been forced to promise to remove one million cars from the streets next month in an attempt to improve the environment in time for next year's Olympic Games.
Earlier figures conceded that 400,000 people died of pollution-related illness in China each year. However, the Financial Times quoted a World Bank report, produced in co-operation with Chinese government ministries over several years, which found that the number was more like three quarters of a million. These deaths are mainly caused by air pollution in large cities.
The World Bank said the study: Cost of Pollution in China: Economic Estimates of Physical Damages, had yet to be finalised and what had been released was a conference version.
China's environment watchdog Sepa (the State Environment Protection Agency) and the Health Ministry reportedly asked the World Bank to cut the calculations of premature deaths from the report when a draft was finished last year.
Even the unfinished version paints a grim picture, putting the cost of deaths from diarrhoea and cancer caused by polluted water at 66bn yuan (£4.34 bn), corresponding to 66,000 premature deaths a year.
"This is a joint research project with the government and the findings on the economic costs of pollution are still under review. The final report, due out soon, will be a series of papers arising from all the research on the issue," the bank said in a statement.
Anecdotal evidence bore out the expected full version of the World Bank report, which uses research methodology from the World Health Organisation. As eye-stinging smog shrouded the Chinese capital for another day yesterday despite rain showers in the afternoon, Beijing organisers were trying to make sure the skies are clear for the Olympics. The Games are scheduled to start at 8pm on 8 August 2008. But the city had poor air quality for 15 days last month, the highest June total since 2000, according to the Municipal Bureau of Environmental Protection. City plans to clean up the skies include measures to replace about 50,000 old cars and 10,000 poorly maintained buses by the end of the year as well as to renovate 16,000 coal-burning factories.
The measures were announced by the International Olympic Committee, which has expressed fears about pollution affecting athletes' health. And the efforts seem to be having some effect. "Concerns [over pollution] within the IOC executive board were eased. They have a plan from 7-20 August this year: one million cars will be off the road," the IOC director of communications, Giselle Davies, was reported as saying this week after receiving a progress report.
The World Bank previously reported that 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities were in China. There were 148 million cars on the road by the end of March. The number is rising by 1,000 a day.