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Fume for improvement

15 January 2013 By John Foley

Bad air chokes good development. China’s authorities have reluctantly started to realize this. The worst air pollution on record drove the point home on the weekend of Jan. 12. So why is the problem getting worse, not better? The conventional answer is that cleaner growth would be slower, a trade-off the authorities are reluctant to make. A “Great Stink”, like the one London experienced in the 19th century, might change their mind.

The smog that envelopes China’s cities is hard to miss. Beijing’s air contained an average of 600 micrograms of PM2.5 particles – one of the most unhealthy kinds of air pollution – on Saturday afternoon. The World Health Organisation recommends no more than 20 micrograms.

This kind of pollution has a real price. There’s a future bill for treating long-term illnesses caused by inhaling particulates. Chemicals in the air also age buildings more quickly, bringing forward the cost of replacing them. But such costs are long-term and hard to measure, which makes them easy to ignore in the pursuit of quantifiable short-term goals like GDP growth and industrial production. Nevertheless, the future liabilities for China’s government and savers are likely to far exceed the present cost of making coal plants and factories cleaner.

There may be hope. Victorian London had a similar problem in 1858 when the “Great Stink”, caused by inadequate waste disposal systems, choked the city. At the time Britain’s urban population, like China’s today, had reached half of its total. Cholera had plagued poor residents for years, yet little improvement could be had because of a lack of hard financing. It was largely the overpowering smell from the Thames disrupting parliamentary meetings that finally got London’s sewer system off the drawing board.

In China too, dirty air – unlike rural chemical spillages and food scares – affects rich folk as well as poor. That might be the best reason for optimism. Of course, China’s wealthy have another option: to flee. But if they take their considerable amounts of money with them, the result could be an even bigger problem. When China’s toxic air starts getting up the noses of the elite, a clean-up may be within sight.


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