Monthly Archives: January 2013

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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British Union and Devolution in Northern Ireland

Police respond to protests in East Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Police respond to protests in East Belfast, Northern Ireland.

About 100 loyalists attacked police officers in East Belfast last week, using bricks, bottles and fireworks as part of a broader (nonviolent) protest against the decision of City Hall to fly the union flag on certain days. One person was arrested on charges of attempted murder after shots were fired at police. Police closed off certain areas of the city and responded to protesters with water cannons.

The protests mark a reversal in the progress towards peace in Northern Ireland. Following protracted negotiations between loyalists (those who want to remain part of the United Kingdom) and unionists (those who want independence for Northern Ireland), the Good Friday agreement was signed in 1998. The agreement established the Northern Ireland Assembly, which ensured representation for key political groups using an electoral system that encompasses both proportional representation and single-transferrable vote elements.

Recall that proportional representation provides seats in the legislature in relation to the portion of the national vote a party receives. Thus, if a party receives 20 percent of the popular vote, it is entitled to 20 percent of the seats in the legislature. Single-transferable vote requires voters to rank-choice their preferences, so that if no candidate receives a majority of the votes cast, the votes earned by the lowest ranked candidate are redistributed to the voter’s second choice, and so on, until a candidate receives an absolute majority. Both systems are intended to promote inclusion of minority voices in the parliament.

The establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly was also part of a broader political agenda of devolution, or the dissemination of power from the national government to regional and local governments. The most well-known example of devolution is the Scottish Parliament, established in 1998, which has successfully governed Scotland under the terms established by the British government since then. In Northern Ireland, devolution was been more problematic, and the Northern Ireland Assembly has been suspended on several occasions as a result of political instability and violence.

The devolution of political authority to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland has raised interesting questions in British politics. Perhaps the most interesting is known as the West Lothian question (sometimes also called the England Question). The West Lothian question is the result of the devolution of political authority in the United Kingdom. National legislatures in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland were established to deal with domestic affairs in those countries, while the (national) British Parliament in London continues to deal with key areas of reserved powers (such as national defense and currency) as well as issues of local interest to England. But while all countries are represented in the national parliament in London, regional parliaments have no national representation. Thus, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish members of parliament vote on domestic English issues, while English MPs do not vote on Scottish, Welsh, or Irish domestic issues. Many English MPs view this as fundamentally unfair, and the British government recently established a panel (the Commission on the Consequences of Devolution for the House of Commons) to investigate the question and report back this year.

What do you think? Is devolution politically problematic in the United Kingdom? Is it unfair? And how is it related to recent developments in Northern Ireland? Take the poll or leave a comment below and share your thoughts.