This week, amidst all the kerfuffle over Beijing’s smog, both Andrew Revkin at the NYT and Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic looked back to historical periods of extreme pollution in the US and the UK as proof that cleaning up the air in large, rapidly developing cities can happen — will happen — given long enough time frames. Madrigal points to Chicago and Pittsburgh, noting
The fundamental struggle of any kind of pollution control is trying to get the polluters to internalize the costs of their pollution. Because if they don’t, the rest of us have to pay more. We — i.e. all of society — subsidize their businesses through increased health care costs, declining values of certain kinds of housing, toxic land or water or air. And the only reason they get away with it is that tracing the line of causality back to them — even when the air looks as disgusting as it does in these photographs — is just that difficult. They hide their roles in the complexity of the system.
So, next time you see one of the photos of Beijing’s pollution and say, “Geez! The Chinese should do something about this!” Just know that it took American activists over a century to win the precise same battle, and that they’re losing a similar one over climate change right this minute.
Similarly, Revkin first looks back to the 1950s London smog episodes and then looks forward, offering potential solutions.
…Much of what we in the West see as shockingly aberrant in today’s industrializing countries and fast-growing cities was our norm a short two generations ago. The same is true for rivers. As I wrote last year, while Nairobi has foaming floods of pollution now, the Hudson, which is now swimmable, had shores sticky with adhesive and shimmering with automotive paint a few decades ago. Prosperity leads to rising public environmental concern and the wherewithal for governments to change rules and practices.
Last year, I asked this question: “Can China Follow U.S. Shift from Coal to Gas?” The country has vast reserves of shale gas but lacks expertise and experience in hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, the innovative mix of technologies that is poised to transform America’s energy prospects (if drilling is done with communities and the environment in mind). A prompt shift from coal to natural gas in China — which would have to involve substantial collaboration with the United States — could potentially be a big near-term step toward stopping growth in greenhouse-gas emissions, and of course clearing the air in crowded, coal-dependent cities.
A few things stand out. While it’s perhaps fair to argue that pollution controls will come on a long enough time frame, it’s a bit problematic to compare 1940s - 1960s Chicago and Pittsburgh to emerging market mega-cities. Beijing’s population is approximately 20 million. Delhi and its surrounding National Capital Region, which suffer from similar bouts of intense ambient air pollution, have an estimated population of a bit over 22 million. In 1940, the population of Pittsburgh was ~700,000; Chicago was home to ~ 3.4 million. London was quite a bit larger during the smog episodes, with a population of ~9 million, but still much smaller than current-day mega-cities. The magnitude of the pollution in these cities — coupled with the sheer number of people residing within them — leads to extremely large, health-damaging population level exposures.
As Revkin points out, there’s a path forward that could lead to more rapid improvements in environmental quality and have a number of political and health-related cobenefits — collaboration between developed and developing markets to improve the quality of energy production. While I’m not 100% onboard with fracking, Revkin’s general point emphasizing cooperation should hold. We, the West, have repeatedly been through the pathway of industrialization -> environmental degradation -> outrage, illness, death -> <- regulatory struggles -> technological innovation -> cleaner environments. We’ve emerged from it in two or three generations with vastly improved environmental conditions, though we must now face the looming specter of climate change. It is in our own selfish interests — indeed, in everyone’s interest — to facilitate cleaner energy production and industrialization globally. The pollutants affecting millions in China and India have long-lasting global impacts that affect us all. Developing and developed countries acting in concert to reduce emissions results in a win-win.
Some caveats. I’m in no way implying that Revkin and Madrigal haven’t thought through these issues. They have - repeatedly and far more eloquently than I - throughout their writings. Second, I fully acknowledge that development occurs on vastly different timeframes and scales in each emerging market. The pace of development today is breathtaking — change occurs at a pummeling pace, enabled by our past technological innovations that now have a global reach. One hopes, given our global interconnectedness and inter-dependency, that we could avoid repeating some of these catastrophes. We’ve been through this repeatedly. We know the cost of environmental degradation in terms of human life, ecosystem quality, and money. And, to an extent, we know how to clean up our industrial processes. We have a fundamental obligation to share this knowledge, to make it heard, and to use our significant global clout to bring it to bear.