January 18, 2013 6:51 pm
The toxic clouds that descended on China this month are a stark reminder of the high costs of unfettered development. Last weekend air pollution in Beijing was at its worst level since readings began four years ago. On Tuesday, in Zhejiang province, the smog was so thick that a factory fire went unnoticed for three hours. The smog did not stop at China’s borders: South Korea also recorded dangerous levels of air pollution.
Unusual weather patterns may have intensified the hazardous fumes. Yet the root causes lie elsewhere. Widespread burning of coal and soaring car emissions are the noxious consequence of China’s economic miracle. The government, moreover, has a poor record in implementing its environmental laws.
Of course, the western world has also had its toxic decades. During the industrial revolution, Edinburgh’s nickname “Auld Reekie” was amply justified. London was labelled “The Big Smoke” and its citizens regularly struggled through fogs called “peasoupers”, for their greenish colour. The darkest days of recent memory came in 1952, when the Great Smog of London resulted in 12,000 deaths.
These tragedies do, however, force governments to address air pollution. In Britain, the Clean Air Act of 1956 banned the use of coal for domestic fires in some urban areas and required that power stations be sited away from cities. In the US, a lethal haze in Donora, Pennsylvania, led Washington to pass the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955. China should follow suit.
Popular discontent is a powerful driver of environmental improvement. But economic calculation should also spur action. World Bank data show that in 2009 air pollution cost the equivalent of 3.3 per cent of China’s national income. Among the costs are rising rates of lung and heart diseases, road accidents and flight cancellations. Toxic skies have an effect on the economy and on human lives. Neither should be allowed to go up in smoke.
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