China Comment

Energy, Environment, and Economy

Kuznets & China’s Pollution

Prognostications are often suspect, but here’s an alternative view in juxtaposition to the usual gloom and doom regarding the threat posed to China by its air and water pollution.

Still, pollution in China is definitely a problem. It leads to over 750,000 premature deaths each year in China, according to a World Bank report. (656,000 air pollution-related deaths, and 95,600 water-related deaths.) “Of the 1,300 Chinese rivers surveyed in 2004, 40.6% received a quality rating of grade IV or V, and 30% of the river water monitored by the Chinese government is grade V.” A rating of IV indicates that the water is unfit for human consumption. Grade V is not even acceptable for agricultural or industrial use (Anna Brettell, 158. In Guo, Challenges Facing Chinese Political Development, 2007).

However dire the current situation is, it is similar to the troubles suffered by America and other countries during the Industrial Revolution and in its wake. But, the problems exist on a much larger scale, since China has more people.

For comparison purposes; as of 2007 in the United States over 41,000 people a year  (0.00014 % of 300M) are estimated to die prematurely due to air pollution (Also see WHO comparisons for 2002). (Other estimates place the 2007 US mortality rate at between 22,000 to 52,000 and speculate that this amount must have dropped significantly in the past 30 years since “the US Environmental Protection Agency reported a decline of 25% from 1970 to 2001 in 6 principal air pollutants: carbon monoxide, lead, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter.” The best data I could find on prior US mortality rates was cited HERE, and argued that in 1991, 60,000 a year in the US succumbed to early death due to air pollution. (1990 US Population=250M, so 0.00024%) (* See End of Article for full citation). This past higher number implies that improvements in pollution mortality rates can be made in a relatively short period of time

In India, 527,700 perish each year due to air pollution. (0.00044% of 1.2B) In China, the amount is 656,000 (0.00050% of 1.3B). 

The US (1948), UK (1952), and Japan, with its Minamata disaster, suffered environmental problems in their manufacturing boom-eras with higher percentages of pollution-related deaths than they currently sustain. What changed in these countries? The passage of legislation such as Clean Air acts in the United States (1962) helped regulate pollution. As people became more aware of pollution’s deleterious effects, they became more motivated to regulate and end it.

Through an abstract theory, it can be argued that China has good precedence for being able, like the US, Europe, and Japan, to mitigate its pollution problems. The “Kuznets Curve Theory” states that as societies modernize, “Pollution will begin to decrease after a country reaches a per capita GDP of between US $3,000 to US $5,000” (Anna Brettell, 155 in Guo Challenges Facing Chinese Political Development, 2007) (other articles state $8,000) . This decline in pollution can be attribuitable to 1.) Awareness, 2.) Improvement in technologies for energy efficiency, 3.) A shift away from manufacturing to cleaner industries.

China’s GDP per capita, in Purchasing Power Parity, for 2007 was ~$6,700 according to the UN Human Development Reports, but according to the CIA it was $5,300. (I believe the CIA may be using the updated numbers after China’s PPP was readjusted around December.)  

In constant dollars, China’s GDP per capita in 2000 was $846 US… by 2007 it had grown to $2,200 US. The Chinese expect to reach $3,000/capita around 2010 (China Daily). If China maintains current +10%/year growth rates, per capita GDP could reach $6,000 by 2020 (It should be noted that China’s GDP statistics are often called into question for being over-estimated; for ease of discussion, I’ll take the official stats at face value.)

Once basic necessities are provided, and economic growth secure, people can afford to deal with pollution externalities that threaten their long-term health.

Environmental NGOs and Environmental Activism in China

In 2001, there were only 39 registered environmental NGOs in China. By 2005, there were over 2000, according to Elizabeth Economy at the CFR (Council on Foreign Relations).

Environmental consciousness is rising, and the State is allowing it to perpetuate. In 1990, citizen environmental complaints were a “mere” 140,681. By 2004, over 726,192 instances of people sending letters and visiting the Environmental Protection Bureau were recorded; a 410% rise over 1990. The number of incidents leading to those visits and letters rose from 111,359 in 1991 to 682,744 in 2004 (Brettell in Guo, 156).

And these letters and groups are having some effect; “The decision in late January 2005 by SEPA Vice Director Pan Yue (with the support of Premier Wen Jiabao and the State Council) to bring to a halt 30 large infrastructure projects including 26 power-related projects on the grounds that environmental impact assessments were not properly completed suggests strong support within the top reaches of Beijing for NGO activity in this realm” (Economy).

 What Does This Mean?

China is in the midst of a pollution crisis. But if its situation is similar to that faced by countries elsewhere around the world, its amount of pollution is nearly at an apex, after which, in China’s wealthier and better-developed coastal provinces, pollution will decrease.

By examining the situation through the lens of the Kuznet’s Curve, it appears that China’s has nearly reached the ~$6000 per capita/PPP amount necessary to facilitate development toward cleaner industries and technologies. China’s recent expansion of its Environmental Ministry represents a step in the direction of a cleaner environment and less pollution.

I prefer to use PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) for comparisons since PPP presents a good way to compare costs of living in different countries. Therefore, I argue China is due for a major anti-pollution push. In a few years, with the assistance of its new Environmental Ministry, and barring any extreme energy crisis necessitating sustained reopening of unclean coal mines, China will get even more serious about enforcing its pollution laws. So, from 2010 and through 2012, prepare to see some major improvements to China’s environment– for the better.

ALSO; The Economist talks about China and India’s differing approaches to dealing with pollution.

World Bank 2007 comparative charts on pollution in countries and cities around the world.

Extra Notes: (see above *) * according to an “Air Pollution in Typical U.S. Cities Increases Death Risk,” press release dated May 13, 1991, from the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Mass. describing findings later reported in Joel Schwartz and Douglas W. Dockery, “Increased Mortality in Philadelphia Associated With Daily Air Pollution Concentrations,” AMERICAN REVIEW OF RESPIRATORY DISEASE Vol. 145 (1992), pgs. 600-604.”)

and  [Brettell, Anna. “China’s Pollution Challenge.” 155-193. In Guo. Challenges Facing Chinese Political Development, 2007.]

* AEI did an excellent article on China and the Kuznet’s Curve.


13 August, 2008 - Posted by | China Environment/Health, China Future | , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Very interesting post. You might also enjoy reading They take the view that it is soley an economic issue – one that should be blamed on western countries who keep providing incentives for China to keep producing as it does… very intersting I highly recommend reading

    Comment by Johan | 21 July, 2009

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