How Cleaning China’s Dirty Air Can Slow Climate Change

Photograph by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Air pollution in China is becoming a serious political concern for the country’s leaders. It is by far the biggest environmental issue in China, attracting considerably more public anger than does climate change. That should come as no surprise, since air pollution has killed millions there. As a result, China is embarking on a debate about controlling pollution, comparable to what the U.S. and Europe went through 30 years ago—a journey that led to pathbreaking legislation such as the Clean Air Act.

There’s a big difference with China’s situation—and it’s one the rest of us should welcome. While the U.S. and Europe dealt with local air pollution through power plant scrubbing technologies and catalytic converters, which don’t do much to slow CO2 emissions, China’s response involves many approaches that will reduce greenhouse gasses. The same is likely to be true for the rest of the developing world: As nations get richer, emissions from fuel will loom as the large public health issues. Cleaner air in Asia, Africa, and Latin America will be a win for planetwide sustainability, which is one reason for a little more hope when it comes to the global environment.

Bloomberg Businessweek’s Christina Larson noted earlier this year that the new normal in Beijing is “sending your kids to school wearing gas masks.” And she reported on the rising demand for pressurized canopies to cover school sports fields (so that children can play without coughing up black phlegm).

In part, the pollution problem is connected to a rapidly expanding vehicle fleet—including large diesel trucks burning dirty fuel. Also to blame is China’s coal industry: The country now burns about as much coal as the rest of the world combined. One reason for that is a discontinued policy that gave free coal for fuel boilers to everyone living in the north of China, much of which was consumed in inefficient indoor home heating systems. A paper co-authored by Yuyu Chen of Beijing University estimates that the 500 million residents of northern China lost more than 2.5 billion life years thanks to the free coal policy in the 1990s, and the policy’s impact lingers to this day, with higher levels of air pollution in the north.

Similar challenges afflict much of the developing world—and make air pollution by far the most serious, immediate atmospheric threat to health and welfare in poor countries. Forecasts (PDF) by the think tank DARA suggest that for the next 15 years, 80 percent of carbon-related deaths in the developing world will result not from CO2-related climate change but from local and indoor air pollution.

The West has shown the problem is manageable. In the 1980s, the U.S. and Europe faced similar (if not as catastrophic) air pollution trouble—with serious smog a recurring feature of life in Los Angeles, for example. America has seen a dramatic improvement in levels of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone, lead, and small particulate air pollution since then. In the 1990s, the U.S. largely dealt with the acid rain problem by controlling sulphur dioxide emissions from the nation’s largest power plants—and overall emissions are down 69 percent since 1980.

Three decades ago, however, the most cost-effective ways to reduce local air pollution from power plants involved using technologies that removed particulates and sulphur dioxide but left in the CO2. Catalytic converters that reduced pollutants like unburned hydrocarbons from cars did nothing to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Today, a number of cost-effective approaches for dealing with local pollution problems also have a salutary impact on the climate. For example, in June, China’s State Council reacted to the rising discontent over air pollution with a series of measures that directly curb local air pollution from refineries but also put in place sharper environmental controls likely to slow the growth of high-pollution industries. In addition, the State Council said it would provide price supports for the sale of solar power to the grid and mandate all solar power be purchased by grid operators. Meanwhile, China’s National Development Reform Commission has proposed capping overall coal consumption in the country. Beyond reducing the immense health costs of local pollution, these measures should help China meet its target of reducing the amount of CO2 produced per dollar of output by 45 percent before the end of the decade.

Lower-income countries still face a trade-off between expanding access to energy and reducing carbon use. For much of the population of the developing world, the cheapest way to get that energy remains through large-scale fossil-fuel plants. But with declining costs of alternate fuel sources and the rising willingness and ability to pay for cleaner air, that calculus is changing. Add in further technology advances and subsidies from rich countries as part of a global climate deal, and clean-air, low-carbon technologies will become the most cost-effective option in ever more cases. That should allow children in the developing-world megacities and worldwide climate campaigners alike to breath a little easier.