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.


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