Will China beat the United States in the fight against air pollution?

There are now pollution red alerts in at least 24 cities in north China, so are things really hopeless in the Middle Kingdom?  I say no.  That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here are some excerpts:

One famous paper, by economists Gene M. Grossman and Alan Krueger, found that (in current dollars) the turning point for environmental improvement comes in “almost every case” when countries reach the range of $17,000 to $18,000 in per capita annual income. Current Chinese per capita income can be plausibly estimated at over $14,000 per year. That means China may not be far from starting to clean up its air, and indeed air quality is already one of the major political issues in China.

The Chinese government already responds to pollution problems with factory closings and automobile restrictions more quickly than it used to, and in general there is better data and more transparency from policymakers.  The U.S. Embassy in Beijing reports pollution improvements for particulate matter over the last year. Over the last two years, there have been suggestions, admittedly debatable ones, that China’s evolution into a service-sector economy means that the turning point already has been reached.

What about the U.S. and its history of fighting air pollution?

By my estimates (see the column), the United States started cleaning up at a per capita income of at least 28k (in current dollars), in the mid-1960s, arguably later than that date.  In other words, if the Chinese waited to start cleaning up their air until they were about twice as rich as is currently the case, they still would be matching the pace of America.


I was in Northeast China last week and when landing on the runway you could hardly see the rest of the airport, never mind about seeing it from the air. I thought the government cannot possibly allow this to continue.

We just had staff there, too, and they had to bring masks.

Seems there's an atmospheric inversion in parts of China right now (not uncommon in the winter, the cold air traps warm air beneath it), see:

Beijing 'trapped under giant toxic cloud' 20 December 2016 Last updated at 12:06 GMT The Chinese capital has seen hazardous smog for four days, but how bad is it?

Does Beijing need to become like London after WWII and have people dying from smog as happened there one infamous week, before pollution is abated?

It's actually warm air trapping cold air underneath, though it's a little more complex than that statement because air cools as it expands.

Normally, temperature decreases with height in the troposphere. If a lump of air rises, it expands and cools (at around 1 degree K per 100 meters). If the rising air is then cooler - and so denser - than the air at that higher level it will drop back down. The normal condition is that the atmosphere is approximately stable so that only limited vertical mixing will occur. In storm conditions, the atmosphere can actually be unstable so that rising air keeps going up, cools further and water vapor condenses and precipitates.

In an inversion, the temperature does not decrease with height and may even increase. This stops vertical mixing dead at the inversion layer. This situation is typically produced in an anticyclone at something like 1000 meters height. The situation is compounded by the broad scale of these systems and the low winds. These systems may also be geographically forced so they persist, maybe for months.

OK, thanks, see more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inversion_(meteorology) and apparently it's a big city effect too, which makes me wonder whether urban heat island from concrete buildings might play a role. "further research is needed".

Let's see the current pace of Chinese growth continue if they suddenly have environmental regulations (and an environmental movement) to deal with. And if they ever get a labor movement - watch out!

Prices are already going up by around 15% on all products from near Tianjin because EPA inspectors shut down a bunch of suppliers. These guys burn coal.

At least the cost increases were not from the higher labor costs associated with green energy.

Much better to have higher capital costs from idle capital, spoiled production, penalties for failing to meet deadlines, etc.

They will have considerable advantages over the rest the West when it comes to fighting pollution. Electric cars are almost cost competitive with iC cars. Likely, once manufacturing really scales up the costs will drop even further. Recharging will always be an issue vs IC, but it is manageable.

On the power generation front, solar has continued its exponential decrease in cost. It is very plausible that within 5 to 10 years that it could be cost competitive on an industrial scale.

I'm no green, I think that, especially in the West, that the green movement has been an abomination. However, hard working engineers, not activists, have made a green future potentially possible. And China's timing had been impeccable.

"On the power generation front, solar has continued its exponential decrease in cost. It is very plausible that within 5 to 10 years that it could be cost competitive on an industrial scale."

Agreed, all the signs point to Solar power being the default cheapest non-dispatchable power source. Assuming batteries keep dropping in $/kwH, then solar will inevitably dominate as it becomes a dispatchable source.

Granted, wind has been dropping also, and since it's intermittency is inherently different, it will also tend to grow in share. But solar powers price drop rate has been much greater over the last 4 years.

We are close to a paradigm shift in power generation.

its exponential decrease in cost.

Go on, figure out the exponent there over the past, say, 20 years.

Battery energy capacity has been doubling about every 9-10 years since Sony introduced the first 18650 lithium ion cell back in the early 90s, proving chemistry is hard. Power electronics have been improving faster, with inverters a factor of 50-100 cheaper than those used in the GM EV1. You project it all forward, and we're only 5 to 10 years away than when new vehicle purchase prices for EVs are lower than comparable internal combustion vehicles. Life-cycle costs will be far lower. There is a tipping point.

I'm less convinced of an all renewables plus storeage grid in anything like that time frame. It's why I advocate natural gas power generation while implementing advanced fission designs. Energy costs matter, especially for those with the least.

Natural gas makes a great deal of sense currently, at least in the US. It is hard to compete with a price of 3.50 per mmbtu.

Thanks for giving the price of US natural gas, Alain. At $3.50 per mmbtu that comes to a fuel cost around 3.6 cents for per kilowatt-hour when burned at 33% efficiency. In the 60% efficient combined cycle gas power plant that would be a fuel cost of 2 cents a kilowatt-hour.

Of course, capital and operating costs have to be added on to get the full cost.

Looking at the data, it seems around a 10% reduction per year. Assuming that holds, it looks like jwatts is right, ~10 years is a better bet than 5. Heck, we could say 15 to be conservative.

"China’s timing had been impeccable" China flushed the absolute perfect number of lives down the toilet through decades of repression and destruction? Mao set a new world's record as biggest mass murderer ever, beating out Genghis Khan (who killed others in order to conquer territory, while Mao killed his own to keep them trapped in a dysfunctional system) - is that what you mean by impeccable timing?

If you're going to praise the butchers of Beijing, you should keep in mind the path they took and the cost that was paid for their current 'success'. That impeccable timing included tens of millions of needless, pointless deaths. But hey, it's a good time to adopt electric cars, so it was all worth it!

Personally, I think that Taiwan's timing has been far better than China's, since it turned towards a democratic market economy much sooner. Whose "timing" has been better - South Korea's, or North Korea's?

While I agree that we need to keep beating the drum of moral clarity on the evils of Communism, I think you may be reading a bit too much into Alain's comment.

Also the motorbikes and scooters in Chinese cities are nearly all electric as far as I know. Laws have restricted internal combustion motorbikes, in contrast to other developing Asian cities.

Cost of pollution control is almost certainly less than when it was launched in the US, because the technologies are very well understood. When automotive air pollution was first starting to be controlled, we literally didn't know how to do it -- let alone cost effectively. Now the technologies are very well understood, and the cost penalties are relatively low, particularly if economically driven standards (rather than technologically possible) are chosen. Similarly, China can reduce electric power generation pollution by a number of known strategies, including cost-effective nuclear power adoption -- capital cost of nuclear plants in China seems to be only 25 percent of those in the US.

If the costs of pollution reduction are lower, this would suggest it would naturally occur at a lower income level.

Nuclear isn't that cheap in China Yet although it helps they have something like 30 planned plants over the next couple of decades. The costs in Japan never really increased and the cheapest in the world are South Korea who has gotten very good at building plants at a slow consistent pace for 1/3 the cost in the US. The newest US plants are actually benefitting from the design lessons learned in China and after a few mergers the contractors for the Chinese plants are the same company as the contractors in the US. There are still some major cost overruns but the secret is building many at once and consistently over time. This is also the reason why Canada has become the world leader in Hydro power where the socialist Quebec has the cheapest power prices on earth and might be the best run state owned corporation on earth.

Yes, China's pollution control efforts have those two important advantages you mention: alternative cleaner technologies have been developed, and more importantly other countries have already pioneered the notion of taking steps to reduce pollution (I never even heard the word "ecology" until maybe 1970 -- google ngrams shows a sharp increase in the growth rate of the word's usage around 1968 or so).

It's similar to how the US pioneered the notion of creating national parks. Nowadays practically every country has some, at least the ones with scenic sites.

"Cost of pollution control is almost certainly less than when it was launched in the US, "

+1, it's generally more expensive to be first.

For a quick history of the U.S.'s fight against air pollution, check out this Marketplace series, "We Used to Be China."

>It is very plausible that within 5 to 10 years that it could be cost competitive on an industrial scale.

I've only been hearing this since 1974. Maybe this time it's true.

No, wait -- it is most definitely not true.

Maybe you could say it again next summer? Yeah, let's do that.

"I’ve only been hearing this since 1974. Maybe this time it’s true."

Those people were ignoratn. It hasn't been close historically. It wasn't close even 8 years ago. Now, it is within site. I'd peg it at 10 years rather than 5.


That being said, the actual paradigm shift will involve (Solar/Wind + Power storage) less than Existing Coal. That may still be in the 10 to 20 year range. As soon as that happens all of the existing coal plants become economically obsolete.

The above might be optimistic. It assumes that current trends continue over the next 5 to 20 year period. However it does not assume that the trends get better. Just that they continue on the same slope they've experienced over the last 5 to 20 years.

My kingdom for an Edit button .... sorry about the typos.

Ignorant ... sight ..etc

The MR web dev assures me that an edit button is "5 to 10 years away."

I thought they were working on my fusion powered flying car.

Agreed. It is getting much closer. We'll see if the price decreases continue at the same rate. If not we'll delay for a while, no big deal.

What was the industrial pollution for the US like in the 1960s compared to China now? While I know there were some horror stories, I don't believe it was as bad as the news we hear from China - although I could be wrong. I think that would be the better comparison, not per capita income which has no relevance by itself to the levels of pollution (although there does seem to be strong correlation of per capita income and systemic attempts at reducing pollution which makes sense, you need wealth first to pay for anti-pollution costs).

Us was supplying domestic demand only. China supplies the world.

And the US in the 1960's had a much lower population density than China today.


In 1970, (before the Clean Air Act regs went into effect), the average AQI was over 200 for carbon monoxide and over 100 for NO2 in New York City. There were 87 days in 1970 when the CO AQI was above 300 (in the "hazardous" range, see here: https://airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=aqibasics.aqi)

That's real bad.

(AQI data here: https://aqs.epa.gov/aqsweb/documents/aqi/AQI_county_1970.zip)

"There were 87 days in 1970 when the CO AQI was above 300 (in the “hazardous” range, see here"

There are monitoring stations in Beijing currently reading 451 and the city wide average is 386.

This is from 2013.

"On Scale of 0 to 500, Beijing’s Air Quality Tops ‘Crazy Bad’ at 755"

JWatts, thanks for the data. Yes, this is what I suspected was the case. US worst case was a bad 300 with an average of 200. China is at 755 with average of 386. In other words, rather than being "ahead" of the US of fighting pollution at the same stage, it is lagging well behind.

A better question would be why does China have so much pollution at much lower per capita GDP? However, we already know the answer. The Communists prioritized economic growth and development regardless of the costs so they didn't care how much pollution was emitted. If China had been even vaguely democratic, public pressure would likely have put in anti-pollution measures much sooner. Instead, things had to get considerably worse than the US before the Communist Party decided to intervene because a failure to do so would hurt the Party.

Harun's comment that the US was only supplying domestic demand in the 1960s is also wrong. The US was an export powerhouse in the 1960s with a very favorable trade balance. Our trade surplus was around 1% of GDP compared to a trade deficit of around 3% now. Certainly the US economy was more domestic oriented, but that was because the US economy was the largest in the world and made up a much higher percentage of the world economy than now. US total manufacturing output was over 40% of the worldwide total in the 1960s (declining from 60%+ it enjoyed in 1940s and 50% in 1950s as Europe and Japan were rebuilding from the war). The US was the "workshop of the world" in the 1960s to a much greater sense than China is today.

London was bad enough in 1952 that perhaps 12,000 people died from smog in a five day period.


China beating the USA? No way! USA! USA! USA! (cough cough)

When particulate matter causes you to cough, Ray, is it Chinese particulate matter or USA particulate matter? And, who would you trust to measure the particulate matter more objectively?

Depends perhaps on whether you are on the west coast USA or east coast USA. Kind of like acid rain and your country Thor.

It represents a failure if a developing nation cannot develop at a faster pace. The same goes for pollution controls.

One issue in China is that the party owns the factories that do the polluting, which is why a city such as Beijing has seen pollution worsen for 5 years after saying it would take steps to reduce it.

"...which is why a city such as Beijing has seen pollution worsen for 5 years after saying it would take steps to reduce it."

What is the evidence that Chinese pollution has been worsening?

Hint: It hasn't and turned became cleaner in both air and water from 2000. This isn't something you analyze from "I landed in Beijing once..."

Tokyo was about as polluted as Beijing when the 1964 Olympics were held in Japan. You couldn't see more than a block ahead of you because of it.

Oh, and China's GDP per capita (ppp) in 2008 during the Beijing Olympics was about the same as Japan in 1964 - $10,000 in 2015 dollars.

As with Japan in 1964 when autos took off, China started to then as well.

Longevity in Japan that is now 82 years was just 70 years in 1964 - the same as China during the 2008 Olympics.

One striking difference though is that about half of China was using cellphones in 2008 while in 1964 Japanese were using rotary phones and watching black and white televisions.

The discussion is about air pollution. Maybe it is net cleaner overall, but the smog is worse. I lived there for many years and watched the PM2.5 readings rise, but you can look up historical data and see it rising. It's also going to extremes more often, 500, 600, 800, or even one time off the charts in 2014.

I was talking about air pollution. That and water have been getting cleaner from 2000.

But won't the US regress now that Coal will be great again and there will be prEPArations for a new Truitt era ?

I realize you're being facetious but it's worth noting that coal is currently uneconomical in the US, regulations be damned.

It's cheaper to build a natural gas fired power plant (and in many places, a wind farm or solar station) than a coal fired power station.

Unless Trump wants to directly subsidize coal production, it's going to be tough for him to bring back the coal mining jobs. Coal is dead.

You have to grind up a lot of rhino horn to compensate for the pollutants in your system, if your AQI is that bad...

Isn't China's air pollution still much worse than the U.S. at its peak? I don't think we had any cities pegging the meters.

Tyler wrote: "China may also be more likely than the U.S. to fix its carbon emissions problem, since such a fix can be packaged and sold to the citizenry along with concrete everyday improvements in breathability and urban visibility. The U.S. does not have the same options for convincing its citizens to bear the costs of a carbon tax or related measures."

China has far more options for convincing its citizens than we do. For one thing, it doesn't even have to convince them, you know, at their friendly local polling station. It can simply command.

However, cleaning the air pollution (e.g. particulates, NOX, SOX, ground level ozone) that causes discomfort and harm to the present, local population is not perfectly coupled with cleaning the air pollution that causes harm to future, distant populations (e.g. greenhouse gases). Yes, a switch from coal to natural gas will reduce both. But pollution reduction equipment at sources (e.g. factories, power plants, cars) will reduce the former but not the latter.

Isn't this an issue where you would expect the distributional characteristics underlying that average per capita income, and of political power, to be incredibly important in determining outcomes?

Air pollution can be difficult to escape, even if you are wealthy or upper class, unless you completely leave the jurisdiction. So I would expect the relevant issue to be "are enough people with enough political power rich enough to prefer a cleaner environment to greater wealth." My prediction would then be that, all else equal, more economically unequal countries would tend to turn to environmental protection at lower average incomes, and that this effect will be more pronounced the more strongly correlated wealth/income are to political power.

Came here to say this. Income averages seems like a sloppy/lazy way to evaluate.

It all depends on which parameter it's used to assess air quality. Using VOCs as the ruler, the precursors of ground-level ozone (visible pollution), then US is fine and China does not. But, looking at another another parameter such as PM2.5, the San Joaquin Valley in California is as bad as some places in China....but PM2.5 is not visible to human eyes.

On a second thought, air quality may be correlated to GDP per capita when the calculations are done at the national level. Does the correlation survives at state/region level? Poor regions with great air and rich regions with bad air do exist.

Of course, this is stupid. America just elected a president and Congress that have no interest in curbing air pollution. Changing the subject to air pollution in China works.

Agreed, your comment is pretty stupid. No one is seriously discussing lowering the US air pollution standards to the horrors of the 1990's or anything.

When I was a child in Denver in the late 60's we had a smog problem due to high auto use and the emissions getting trapped into the valley Denver lies in. But in Denver we complained about not seeing the mountains. I am currenlty in Beijing and you can not see a mile. I never remember people in Denver wearing masks and schools never closed (I would remember that).

Pittsburgh was known for having conditions akin to modern-day Beijing. However, this was cleaned up well before the 1960s--mainly in the 1940s.


Another China fact of the day: Dog is another red meat, and surprisingly, it is better than the other omnivore we eat, the pig. This was for celebrating winter solstice. Pollution reference: I have mild asthma, and suffer terribly when exposed to cigarette smoke, perfume, burning of trash, but I did not react to the Beijing smog, which I have experienced both summer and winter. Since Chinese voluntarily choose passive smoking in large quantities, is that smog a big deal?

(Personally, I am all for nuclear all the way, we should leave the hydrocarbons in the ground, reason 1 ' Natural gas can be used for transportation and petrochemical feedstock, reason 2, if we go through another dark age, it would be good to ha e some easy bootstrap energy source, reason 3, AGW, but costs are unknown.)

No. Human activity causes pollution, and China has way more humans than the United States.

One problem with a Chinese pollution-control effort is that the strategy of outsourcing your country's pollution to China won't work for them.

The epidemic smog problems are not due to lack of technology or regulations. Technology is there, regulations are there. People just find every ways to keep the technology idle and game the regulations. For example, plants have scrapers installed to get the license to run but disable the equipments most of the time. The emission data are fabricated.

Oh brother. Why do ordinarily lucid economists lose it when it comes to issues like these?

Aside from the fact that the average income at which nations adopt cleaner environmental standards is an estimate and subject to substantial variation, there are other factors weighing in on pessimism. Namely, that China is a corrupt socialist economy where its leaders benefit from pilfering short run gains in production at the expense of future growth.

China is also likely moving at a faster pace than the US because the cost of abatement is so much lower for China than the US faced. First, you have massive amounts of labor that can substitute for polluting capital. Second, you have a government without concern for the welfare of its people. It can easily impose a requirement to bicycle to work, for example, forcing people to bear the brunt of pollution controls. Third, technology of pollution abatement has improved, lowering its costs substantially compared to 40-50 years ago for the US. Fourth, China's export promotion policies subsidize local development of cheap alternative energy sources. Fifth, China relies on nuclear power far more than the US, and is currently expanding that capacity.

All put another way, the least developed nations will obviously adopt measures to remedy social ills such as malnutrition when someone invents antimatter reactors and food replicators that all but eliminate production and scarcity problems.

China is a filthy cess pool. No one should be commending it for improving their environment apace when they visibly destroy their environment and have every advantage of modern technology to mitigate the damage.


If they were serious about stopping pollution, they wouldn't stifle pro environment documentaries (produced with state media support)


Feigning a bit of concern every now and again helps them kick the can down the road. But make no mistake that dealing with enviro protestors is easy compared to dealing with unemployed protestors

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