As the world’s largest consumer of solar power, China’s energy industry is attempting to move on from its coal-burning past towards a more sustainable future. But sometimes the past isn’t easily forgotten. New research published in the journal Nature Energy suggests the country’s densely polluted atmosphere is blocking the sun’s rays, preventing solar panels from harvesting energy efficiently. China’s rapid economic expansion was largely fuelled by coal, which lifted millions of people out of poverty but also drove up levels of air pollution.
Led by Bart Sweerts of the Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science in Zurich, the study mapped the effect of China’s air pollution on potential solar output from the 1960s up to 2015.
The results showed that average solar generation declined by between 11-15% over the period. Researchers forecast that a return to the air-quality levels of the 1960s could result in an increase in solar electricity harvests of more than 12%.
Costs of pollution
Economic loss is just one cost of pollution. In terms of human health, long-term exposure to toxic air increases the likelihood of strokes, lung disease, lung cancer and heart attacks.
Air pollution is the fourth-highest cause of death in the world, after smoking, high blood pressure and poor diet. According to the World Health Organization, 90% of the global population breathes air containing high levels of pollutants.Every year, the problem contributes to more than 7 million deaths, with exposure highest in developing countries.