Of Designer bags and respiratory illnesses: reflections on Beijing and the environmental movement

Earlier this January, I was in Beijing for a business school project for 10 days – a cultural immersion. On day 4 in Beijing, my lungs hurt. Being in Beijing on a bad day is like smoking a pack of cigarettes. This phenomenon is made worse by the fact that many people smoke cigarettes too (presumably because one pack of cigarettes is not enough). Our driver, for example, smoked in the car whilst he was waiting for us. I decided to wear my mask in the car too.

We continuously checked our apps for the air quality index and days where the air was ‘unhealthy’ were common.

Hello from the Summer Palace, Beijing
Hello from the Summer Palace, Beijing

I’ve done some work on air pollution before when I was working on the New Climate Economy project, on the report ‘Better Growth, Better Climate’ (newclimatecnoomy.report). In this blogpost, I tie back some findings from the report to some of the issues I experienced.

Let’s not be arrogant: air quality is a problem in many places

Although we bang on about Chinese air, let’s not be arrogant: a little known fact I came across whilst working at the New Climate Economy is that none of the world’s top 50 cities by population meet World Health Organization (WHO) air quality standards. Check it out (click on it to make it bigger):

This data is from various environmental agencies in these countries, mostly from 2011. It was compiled for the NCE project specially.
This data is from various environmental agencies in these countries, mostly from 2011. It was especially compiled for the New Climate Economy project.

Note: There are many types of air pollution metrics, and indeed air pollution varies even within the same day due to wind etc. These figures should be taken illustratively more than worth arguing about to decimal points. What they do show is that a number of cities are worse than Beijing. For example, Delhi is worse than Beijing!! It just didn’t get much media attention until lately (see: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/oct/17/india-launches-air-quality-index-to-warn-over-dangerous-pollution-events)

The false tradeoff and outdated worldviews

There is a prevailing view that there is some kind of trade-off, that you can either have growth or good air not both. The findings of the New Climate Economy project were resoundingly that this trade-off is often false. Here I look at what I believe are misconceptions.

1) Misconception: “It’s a conscious trade-off they made”

My response: Really? Imagine for sake of argument there was a trade-off. Do people prefer to have a Louis Vuitton bag on their arm via a $80K salary instead of a $60K salary, rather than clean air to breathe? You’d have to really love LV…Do people want their children, their elderly relatives, their loved ones suffering from the myriad of respiratory illnesses associated with such dangerous levels of air pollution for the sake of driving a new car on already clogged streets? I suspect this is a horrible situation people have fallen into rather than consciously chosen

2) Misconception: “If they did something about the air pollution, it would take a few points of GDP growth”

My response: Well, actually air pollution costs China. The World Bank estimated that environmental degradation costs up to 9% of GDP, through health damages, soil and water degradation. Other studies have put air pollution alone as costing around 4% of GDP. Treating people for lung cancer is not free, and sick days reduce productivity.

The GDP costs could be even higher. Here’s a weird economics thought I’m grappling with: there is a paradox in the way we measure output: that extra doctor’s appointments count as extra GDP… Is that right?!

Also, there is the fundamental question of is GDP the right thing to measure? Are we trying to maximise GDP or wellbeing and happiness? Air pollution significantly damages wellbeing and happiness. Some noteworthy findings reported in the Telegraph in a 2014 story:

a) China’s ‘airpocalypse’ kills 350,000 to 500,000 Chinese people prematurely each year.

b) Between 2002 and 2011 the incidence of lung cancer in Beijing near doubled.

c) Nationwide, deaths from lung cancer have risen 465 per cent in the last three decades.

I’d say that’s quite a heavy price to pay.

3) Misconception: “Wind and solar are just so pathetic and ineffective they could never provide all the energy needed”

My response: Let’s not think in a binary way about issues. Most sensible environmentalists are not proposing switching off coal over night. The concept of transition is well heard in the environmental field, too well heard perhaps. I believe transitions should not be drawn out and slow when they involve human health.

It’s 2015. Renewable technologies have experienced rapidly falling costs and have improved in terms of power generation capabilities. Financing mechanisms are being developed and the innovation continues. The renewables industry is dynamic. Yet very frustratingly, public and indeed even politician perceptions have not kept up. Renewables will not need the kind of Government financial support they’ve needed in the past forever. Yet they need different types of sensible Government and public support now to take them to the next level. With the right policies and institutions, they can thrive. Indeed, new wind and new solar are already cost-competitive with fossil fuels in many parts of the world.

“Achieving Germany’s solar PV build-out today would cost a third of what Germany spent over the past decade – and potentially much less in a country with better solar resource.”

– ‘Better Growth, Better Climate’

Let’s look, for example, at wind turbines. Their power generation capability has gone up 100x since the 1980s:

Infographic from newclimateeconomy.report
Infographic from newclimateeconomy.report

It is not inconceivable that nearly 100% of energy could come from clean sources…if people stop holding us back with their blanket view that it’s just not possible because we haven’t done it up until now. If you don’t trust me, trust someone who has actually led the solar revolution in Germany (the largest solar power generator in the world): Herman Scheer. His thesis? 100% renewables is possible and we should not aim for any less. (His book lays out how: The Energy Imperative: 100% renewable now by Herman Scheer).

Frankly, naysayers, if you’re defending coal, you are saying “I don’t believe the human race is ingenious enough to be able to generate energy in any way except for the most primitive which is to burn stuff we dig out of the ground in a fire”.

4) Misconception: “Solar panels and wind turbines take so much energy to produce it’s just not worth it.”

My response: Let’s settle this once and for all. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the most respected authority on climate change matters. They cite studies that worked out the lifecycle emissions associated with different forms of electricity generation. Lifecycle emissions include the average emissions associated with manufacture, transportation etc. You’ll see why environmentalists like to talk about coal. It’s MUCH worse than any other form of energy. See below:

Source: IPCC
Source: IPCC

Air, water, soil: the little things in life?!

if only trees

Environmentalism needs a revolution that takes it from niche to mainstream. It’s everybody’s business. So if you are holding your designer bag, thinking ‘this is not my field or interest’, politely, many of us say ‘wakey wakey’ to  you. People are realizing this matters rapidly and educating themselves on environmental issues rapidly. I cannot be arrogant – I learn so much from people I talk to every day about the environment. Fundamentally, the air we breathe, the water we drink, how can this not be important?  Our air, our water, our soil, our planet feeds into everything else: the food we consume, health, economics, happiness, spiritualism, art, culture. The green movement is not just about green, it’s a movement for every colour. Its goal? A planet where humans and animals can be healthy, safe and happy enough to enjoy every colour.

Envrionmentalism being niche is one of the greatest tragedies of logic of our time. Whatever you're doing, it's a subset of the Earth. So if you care about what you're doing and you realize it's all connected, how can you not care about the Earth?
Environmentalism being niche is one of the greatest tragedies of our time, a sheer defiance of logic. Whatever you’re doing, it’s a subset of the Earth. So if you care about what you’re doing and you realize it’s all connected, how can you not care about the Earth?


The views in this blogpost are mine. Though I leverage some of the exhibits I worked on at the New Climate Economy project, the views expressed in this post are not views of the Global Commission necessarily.




World Bank

World Health Organization