By Tim O'Shea
Every powerful nation has produced its own Achilles’ Heels. The size of the Roman Empire led to disunity and weakness. The rallying persona of Alexander the Great led to a dependence on his leadership that caused his empire to collapse soon after his death. And for the modern China, the same environmental disregard that has allowed their industry to proceed at such a rapid pace may be strangling its citizens.
Recent decades have seen exponential economic growth in China, accompanied by an expansion of diplomacy, trade, and international attention. But behind the satin curtain of a prosperous China lies the – literally – dirty truth about the fuel for the rise: coal. 70% of China’s energy production comes through coal – fired power plants, and coal produces absurd amounts of pollutants and greenhouse gasses, without even considering the especially poor efficiency and environmental considerations in China specifically. Beijing has turned a blind eye to the rampant violation of the country’s environmental regulations as a way to perpetuate rapid growth, but the sacrifices are severe. The latest World Health Organization data from 2013 places Beijing’s average at particulate matter levels at 156% higher than the national standard. Particulate matter poses a disproportionate health risk because the particles are small enough to pass through the body’s natural barriers and defenses, infiltrating human blood streams and organs.
The health implications for the emissions problem at large are staggering. Outdoor air pollution allegedly killed 1.2 million Chinese citizens in 2010 alone, life expectancy in China fell 5.5 years from 1981 to 2001, and rates of lung cancer have risen over 450% despite stagnated levels of smoking. A Chinese politician might see these sufferings as only necessary sacrifices, but that’s a flawed, perhaps smoggy, lens. Health issues undoubtedly lower productivity by increasing the amount of sick days, hurting focus while at work, and forcing more citizens to use already – overcrowded medical infrastructure that could just as easily cure them as give them another disease. Such costs are not conducive to the kind of growth that China longs for, and needs if they want to pass the United States as the world’s largest economy.
The real question lies with whether it’s fixable. Unless Beijing can truly commit to reducing emissions by understanding both the immediate and long term detriments, pollution will always be tomorrow’s problem. Such an attitude is apparent in the lethargic level of environmental enforcement in China. But could the solution lay in an even more radical path of growth? The Kuznets Curve, a radical economic model confirmed by empirical research, presents a graph of a country’s economic progress along the x – axis, and the environmental quality along the y – axis. The progress follows an inverted – U shape, meaning, quite simply, that conditions become dismal before they can improve. The hypothesis holds that as companies can afford more efficient and clean technology, and consumers hold enough wealth to purchase goods that preserve the environment, economic growth can contribute to the preservation of the biosphere. And while it seems like a Utopian pipe dream, the statistical relationship has been proven even if heavily industrialized nations such as Thailand. Thus, a more counterintuitive approach to pollution problems in China would be to fight to keep growth going and monitor the market for the inverted U – shape in order to fight through through current issues to a brighter future.
In the pro – growth political climate that has permeated Chinese policy – making, an accelerated path of growth might be the only feasible path for the future, considering past resistance to more traditional forms of pollution reduction. But whether the nation uses emissions reduction. green technology, an accelerated path of growth, or any other method of fixing the pollution, each has one factor in common: they’re needed now.