Before the wheels touched down last March at Beijing’s spectacular airport, we could smell the pollution. Burning eyes, raspy throats, and persistent coughing got our attention faster than smart phone apps which registered particulate levels (PM 2.5) off the charts—15 times worse than the World Health Organization’s acceptable standard. We were lucky. The levels had been far worse the previous week, and fortunately, that night gusting winds brought major relief—lowering harmful levels to just three times the health threshold.
Beijingers told us their ancestors prayed for rain; they pray for wind.
The next day Premier Li Keqiang “declared war on pollution,” unveiling plans to restructure the economy and promote clean energy development to advance growth while cutting conventional pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions. More recently, the government announced that it will not allow coal burning in the capital city by the end of 2020.
If laissez-faire environmentalism aided China’s incredible growth—which has lifted hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty—the lack of strong constraints now undermines that growth. China confronts serious competitive drag: major health costs on the horizon, social unrest, the loss of international markets for contaminated products, and even the increasing reluctance of business leaders to let their families live in heavily polluted cities.
Facing massive environmental deficits—extensive poisoning of the land, air, and water—China will require years of aggressive policies and massive investment to correct the course. In the meantime, to get a few days of relief, Beijing is ready to trigger emergency measures: temporarily shutting down industrial plants and restricting driving of the ever-expanding auto fleet. Other cities are experimenting with geoengineering: seeding clouds to wash out some of the particulates—in short, creating acid rain, trading one pollution problem for another.
Landing back at Dulles Airport a week later, the air was breathable. But the airwaves in Washington carried loud voices denouncing the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a threat to American prosperity and to our global economic competitiveness.
While many factors enhance or inhibit a nation’s economic growth, it should now be clear that 40 years of attention to the environment by federal and state governments has been accompanied by major economic growth and has created a major American asset. For most people, prosperity is more than GDP growth.