“It seems like we are living in a gas chamber.” — New Delhi’s high court, in a December directive ordering the Indian capital to immediately devise a plan to reduce severe levels of air pollution in the city
China and India are paying a heavy price for the industrial revolutions that in recent decades have propelled them to economic superstardom. In China alone, an estimated 1.6 million people die prematurely each year from air pollution. That’s about 4,400 people per day, and 17 per cent of total deaths in the country.
Twice last month, Beijing officials put the city on red alert — the most severe alarm — for the first time since the colour-coded warning system was introduced two years ago. A red alert is disruptive to the economy, requiring vehicles to be taken off the roads, factories shut down, and schools closed.
Breathing conditions are scarcely better in New Delhi, capital of the world’s seventh-largest economy. (China’s GDP is now second only to the U.S.)
Faced-masked commuters have been choking on thick fog in recent weeks in New Delhi, population 16 million (about the size of Greater New York). The city ordered that as of the start of this year, motorists will be permitted to drive only on alternate days, according to their odd- or even-numbered license plates.
The industrial revolutions in these two countries have occurred at lightning speed compared with Western industrialization. In China, the transformation dates from 1978, and in India from 1991. Western-style market liberalizations in each country have lifted hundreds of millions of people from peasantry into the middle class. At about 400 million people, the Indian middle class alone exceeds the total population of the U.S.
That milestone in history explains why the number of people in poverty worldwide peaked about three years ago.
But China’s jaw-dropping economic growth — GDP has risen 48-fold in less than four decades — has seen the West offshore not only low-wage jobs to China, India and elsewhere in the Pacific Rim and South Asia, but a share of its air pollution, as well.
Current research indicates that more than two-thirds of the estimated seven million deaths worldwide from air pollution each year occur in China and India. The death count is expected to double by 2050 in the absence of strict government intervention. Most of the additional deaths are expected to occur in Pacific Rim and South Asian countries, notably China, India, Bangladesh and Indonesia, all major suppliers to the West.
But China is a leader in solar power, in which it held the global lead until the Obama administration committed the U.S. to robust alternative energy development. China is also a leader in wind power. A country routinely castigated for its reliance on coal-fired power plants has also increased its wind-power capacity 20-fold between 2003 and 2008.
James Fallows, the veteran China watcher who has long lived in that country and whose latest book is China Airborne, considers pollution to be the worst of what he describes as China’s many problems.
“The Chinese government is working very, very hard to deal with its air, water, land, food-supply, and other sustainability problems,” he writes. “So it’s a race between how hard the country is trying and how dire the situation is.”
Linfen is a Chinese town so blighted by industrial pollution that journalists worldwide routinely file reports on its pollution-belching steel mills, coal mines and oil refineries. Linden is described in U.S. online magazine Slate as having the appearance of a “post-apocalyptic nightmare.”
Conversely, there is Masdar, a model of advanced 21st-century urban planning that is rising on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. The new town, which will be home to about 40,000 residents, is to be car-free, powered exclusively by renewable energy, and will use light rail commuter transit to achieve the goal of a “zero carbon” city.
Alas, while many Masdars will be built worldwide this century, the substantive task will be to bring about a renaissance in existing cities much larger than Linfen.
That will require trillions of dollars’ worth of construction, since retrofitting an existing city is a far more complex challenge than building one from scratch.
That said, economist and urban planner Edward Glaeser sees enormous potential in the slums of Mumbai and Mexico City and the favela of Rio de Janeiro.
In Glaeser’s conception, something like 70 per cent of the places where people now live have yet to be built. They are in need of decent housing, potable water, hospitals, schools, shops and light manufacturing. Slums are 21st-century cities waiting to be built, he says. That’s an optimistic take, obviously, given the trillions of dollars these megaprojects will absorb.
Then again, reinvented communities would reduce both air pollution and CO2 emissions, and create more able workforces by providing leading-edge health care and education services. And the reduction in crime rates, a by-product of poverty eradication, would attract foreign investment to ease the cost to local governments of the needed transformation.
There is that progressive option, or the status quo. The latter retards global economic prosperity, and in certain jurisdictions provides a breeding ground for embittered residents who become radicalized.
For now, it’s bad enough that on many days the people of New Delhi cannot make out the immense presidential palace in the toxic fog. And that the outlines of Mao Zedong’s enormous portrait in Tiananmen Square are visible only within a few yards of it. As wake-up calls go, this one is screaming.