global warming: The dirty legacy of China’s and India’s growth


By Eric Roston and Andre Tartar

The sixth-biggest cause of death globally is small-particle pollution, chemical specks that enter the lungs and can contribute to cardiovascular diseases, lung cancer, and infections. It led to more than 4 million deaths in 2016. Ninety-nine per cent of children 5 years old and younger in South and East Asia breathe unhealthy air.




Much of China’s particulate pollution comes from industrial facilities, especially coal-burning power plants. In India, PM2.5 comes not only from cars and coal-fired power stations, but also from widely used domestic cookstoves and the common agricultural practice of burning to clear fields.

India’s minister for environment, forest, and climate change has shut down a coal-burning power plant, increased the number of street sweepers in the capital region to combat dust, and started an initiative to mechanize the clearing of fields.

Nothing lifts a poor country’s economy faster than heavy industry, but polluted water and smog are the price a society pays. Eventually, those costs—economists call them externalities—begin to undermine the very growth they’ve brought. Government officials are recognizing that dirty air isn’t just a health hazard, it’s bad for business.


To wean its population off dirty fuel, India’s government has distributed more than 700,000 solar cookers in recent years and added more than 34 million residential gas connections, with 80 million more planned by 2020.



China’s bad air became a worldwide story beginning in 2008, when US officials started releasing air quality measurements taken at the American Embassy in Beijing, embarrassing their host nation. Traditional news outlets and social media have provided dramatic updates on what some of the worst air in the world looks and feels like. This attention to the problem, along with the worsening pollution itself, pushed Chinese authorities to begin addressing the challenge. Power plants switched from coal to natural gas; low-pollution zones were established in and around Beijing; stepped-up inspections led to tough penalties for noncompliant polluters. As a result, for days, sometimes weeks at a time, when the rain falls or the great winds blow, Beijing sees the sky.



While leaders are struggling to fix the systemic causes of bad air, people can take steps to protect themselves. Masks and respirators are common in Asia’s choking cities, but few can filter out all the particles and noxious gases hanging in the air. There are herbal medicines that purport to clean the lungs, as well as food, cosmetics, and beverages that claim to counter the effects of pollution. Keeping windows closed and running an air conditioner have been shown to cut the influx of dirty air indoors by half. But people with a personal or family history of disease may be better off leaving town—at least during times of high pollution.


Now that Indian farmers have harvested their fall crops, they will clear their fields the traditional way—by burning them. The soot-thick air hangs over northern India during the winter, dramatically exacerbating the cloud of toxins already spewed by power plants, factories, vehicles, and stoves.


China and India are being asked to do something the West didn’t have to: Modernize their economies while reducing pollution. Both nations pledged in the 2015 Paris climate agreement to reduce the intensity of their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. China’s electricity generation from coal and its CO2 emissions are expected to peak around 2030, more than a decade ahead of India, according to Bloomberg NEF.



Clean-air policies have had a dramatic impact on pollution in the US and Europe since the 1970s. Asia’s giants are just setting out on that journey.
—With Iain Marlow and Dan Murtaugh

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