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China’s Pollution Crisis

What it Means, Its Cost and Is There a Way Out?
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Last week, Chinese authorities issued the country’s first red alert since 2013 over the severe pollution levels in Beijing. The alert, which lasted a number of days, closed schools, shuttered factories and restricted the use of vehicles. But beyond the obvious signs that the country has a pollution problem, what is the cost of pollution to a nation?

“It’s enormous, both in economic costs and human misery,” says Jane Hall, professor emeritus of economics and a nationally recognized environmental economist. Hall has done a number of studies on what are the health and economic consequences of pollution. “People lose years of life, children miss school, productivity falls, hospitals become crowded. All of this adds up to billions of dollars a year.

“In China – and other rapidly emerging economies, such as India – the root cause is a witches’ brew of dirty fossil fuels and atmospheric conditions,” she notes. “As was the case in the Industrial Revolution, coal literally fueled the unparalleled emergence of China’s manufacturing industries.”

Fellow economist Robert Mead agrees, adding, “much of the combustion occurs in older or relatively simple facilities, so there isn’t much effort to minimize pollution from the burning. More recently, China’s automobile fleet has increased dramatically, so auto-based emissions have increased dramatically.”

“Add to that inversion layers – think of the lid on a simmering saucepan – and you have pollution that utterly overwhelms the ability of the atmosphere to dilute it to safer levels,” Hall explains. “Even without the inversion, dilution simply means the pollution has gone downwind.”

Mead, associate professor of economics and co-author of a number of articles on China’s environment (“Valuing Air Pollution Mortality in China’s Cities,” “Rise of the Automobiles: the Costs of Increased NO2 Pollution in China’s Changing Urban Environment”), says that while there is a growing concern about pollution by the people of China, “the desire for a cleaner environment is tempered by the desire of others to have a higher income.

“The central authorities are trying to balance the two. Areas that are less developed are probably more focused upon new industry or economic growth. Construction of such facilities, even if the facilities are clean, is going to generate some local pollution. Areas that are more developed are going to show more concern towards the environment, but they will likely be cautious in their approach. Environmental clean up which results in widespread shutdowns is not likely to be well received.”

Realistically, can China improve their pollution conditions enough and in time for the 2022 Winter Olympics?

Both Hall and Mead say pollution should be low during the 2022 Olympics, because they are likely to shut down many enterprises as they did during the 2008 summer games.

Other countries, some that aren’t as big or as wealthy as China, also have issues with pollution. What can developed nations do to help?

“What we have been doing – and again California is a leader in this – is bringing environmental managers and engineers to the U.S. to learn about technologies, our successful programs, how to monitor and identify the priorities for what to clean up, and how to communicate why this is important,” says Hall. “U.S. specialists also travel to China, and elsewhere, to learn firsthand what we can do.”