Pollution and Development in Beijing

Sunrise over Beijing's polluted skyline.

Sunrise over Beijing’s polluted skyline.

Air pollution in the Chinese capital Beijing reached levels deemed hazardous to human health over the weekend. According to World Health organization guidelines, air is “unhealthy” when the tiniest particles (PM 2.5) reach 100 micrograms per cubic meter. Individuals are usually warned to remain indoors when they reach 300 micrograms. Unofficial readings from the U.S. embassy recorded levels over more than 800 micrograms per cubic meter. Inhaling such particles can cause respiratory infections and increase the likelihood of developing lung cancer and heart disease.

Pollution in Beijing and other Chinese cities is primarily the result of the country’s rapid economic development. In Beijing, air pollution is derived from two primary sources: car exhaust and coal dust.

The environmental Kuznets curve helps to make sense of this relationship. According to curve, there is a relationship between environmental quality and economic development. As countries industrialize, environmental degradation (pollution, etc.) tends to increase until the country reaches a particularly level of development, at which point it begins to fall. The theory is that a “clean environment” is a post-material demand. Individuals living in deep poverty place a clean environment relatively low on their list of priorities, which generally focus on more immediate survival concerns. However, once those survival needs are satisfied, individuals begin to demand other rights. This theory has been advanced to explain everything from environmentalism to democratization and minority rights.

In the case of the environment, there is clear data that suggest that—for many contaminants—the curve holds true. Interestingly, the tipping point, the level of economic development at which pollution begins to decline, appears to vary by pollutant. Lead, for example, begins to decline at a relatively low level of economic development, while air pollution (particulates) decline at a higher level. For others—most notably carbon dioxide emissions—there appears to be no decline, and levels of CO2 emissions continue to increase in step with the size of the economy at all levels of development.

The environmental Kuznets curve raises some interesting questions for sustainable development. If correct (and the theory is itself contested), it suggests that sustainable development is really about transitioning countries from a relatively low point on the curve to a higher point. Once at that higher point, the level of economic development would result in local incentives and demands for a cleaner environment. But the lack of relationship between the level of development and levels of certain pollutants, such as greenhouse gasses, are reason for concern.

What do you think? Does China’s economic development raise environmental concerns? How might Chinese development be made greener? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know your thoughts.

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2 responses to “Pollution and Development in Beijing

  1. China will be a great test-case for the theory. I tend to agree that economic development and the growth of wealth of individual Chinese citizens will drive greater concern and future positive environmental action for the country. on the carbon emissions correlation (or lack thereof)… ugh, worrisome.

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