China’s Economy, Urbanization, and Smog

Sunday, January 27, 2013 13:17
Posted in category The Big Picture
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Last week Fons Tuinstra and I spent 30 minutes speaking about the issues that China is facing with smog.  More than an isolated incident that is contained in Beijing, and due to a number of systems that are running inefficiently, the conversation focused less on cleaning up energy supplies or taking cars off the roads, and more on the actual causes of pollution.

It was a clip that was picked up by James Fallows in his post Ten Minutes to Help You Understand China’s Environmental Emergency, and using the notes from James’s post, here are some of the highlights (in case you don’t have the full 30 minutes):

  • Time 9:20+ how ordinary Chinese citizens are affected by the emergency
  • 11:15+ why the respective geographies of Beijing and Shanghai usually make problems worse in Beijing (which like LA sits in a bowl where air gets trapped), but why Shanghai is suddenly “catching up” and in a worst-ever situation for air quality;
  • 12:15+ why parents of small children must constantly worry about air quality, along with food safety
  • 13:00-15:00+ why not only foreigners but increasing numbers of young Chinese say they are thinking of leaving the country to escape the air, water, and food problems.


… the last ten minutes of the broadcast, starting around time 20:00. Very matter-of-factly Brubaker lays out the basic realities of China’s environmental/economic/social/political conundrum:

  • that its pollution and other environmental strains are the direct result of rapidly bringing hundreds of millions of peasants into urban, electrified, motorized life;
  • that China’s economic and political stability depends on continuing to bring hundreds of millions more people off the farm and into the cities;
  • that China’s practices and standards in city planning, transport, architecture, etc are still so inefficient enough that, even with its all-out clean-up efforts, its growth is disproportionately polluting. In Europe, North America, Japan, etc each 1% increase in GDP means an increase of less than 1% in energy and resource use, emissions, etc. For China, each 1% increment means an increase of more than 1% in environmental burden. And, the most important part for Western readers:
  • this cannot go on. Brubaker makes a point ignored in virtually every breezy prediction of the inevitable Chinese future: that environmental constraints are the most urgent of several limits affecting the famed “Chinese growth model,” and because of them it is far from obvious that China will ever “overtake” the United States or anyone else.

More on this topic later in the week.

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