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Since 2007, China has been the biggest atmospheric polluter on the planet, emitting a quarter of all greenhouse gases. This has much to do with the country’s rapid industrial and urban development, 70 percent of which is powered by coal.

Coal is the cheapest but also the dirtiest fuel source on Earth, which has made divestment difficult, especially for developing countries. The long-term effects, however, not only on the environment but also on human health, are impossible to ignore.

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Smog is a major hazard in China, and growing worse. In the capital city of Beijing, coal accounts for 22 percent of the fine particles in the air. This pollution, combined with other forms of black carbon (such as from automobile emissions) and ozone, are poisoning the air to the degree that lung cancer rates in the city rose 50 percent in less than a decade. That ghastly statistic has spurred the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau to call for a ban on the fossil fuel (as well as fuel oil, petroleum coke and combustible waste) by 2020.

Now there’s a new ghastly statistic making the rounds. Researchers from Tsinghua University, government-backed institutes, the China Academy of Environmental Planning and Peking University have published a study that links particulate pollutants from coal to 670,000 premature deaths in China in 2012.

The worst particulates are those that are 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller. Over time, these particulates lead to strokes, lung cancer, coronary heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Teng Fei, an associate professor at Tsinghua University, told the South China Morning Post that the damages to the environment and human health wrought by smog add up to about 260 yuan (HK$330) for each tonne of coal used in 2012.

“With existing environmental fees and taxes of between 30 to 50 yuan for each tonne of coal, the country’s current pricing system has largely failed to reflect the true costs,” said Teng.

Li Guoxing of Peking University’s School of Public Health, told the paper that their study did not include medical costs for diseases such as asthma, which can be induced by pollution.

“The health cost [of the study] is only based on the premature death figures due to the limitations of our research data,” said Li. “It could be way higher if we also include medical costs for other chronic illnesses.”

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