Don’t Get Caught Up in the Air Pollution Hype

Sure, the haze and smog problems of the developing world are awful. But they have little to do with climate change.


China is paying a terrible price for the foul air enveloping its major cities, as elites and tourists decamp to cleaner climes while health concerns intensify. Anxieties over air quality have been growing for years, beginning with ordinary citizens and now increasingly penetrating government circles.

But things seemed to skyrocket last week when Chai Jing, a well-known journalist, released a self-funded documentary about air pollution. The film, titled Under the Dome, examines the low-grade fuels that have fed smog and why the problem is not being fixed quickly. It immediately racked up more than 100 million views on Chinese video-streaming sites, including, remarkably, state-sponsored news outlets — although, a few days later state censors tamped down the fever pitch. Debuting shortly before two key Chinese political conferences, the film could send environmental concerns up the agenda.

Under the Dome’s release also comes only months after regional rival India began grappling with its similar — and, arguably, worse — air pollution problems. As a new study by academics from the University of Chicago, Harvard University, and Yale University has found, Indians living in densely packed urban megalopolises like Delhi lose more than three years of their life, on average, due to air pollution. The diplomatic repercussions of the grisly findings have come fast and furious: The European Union has begun raising the alarm about the safety of its embassy staff, and India’s Economic Times has reported that the United States, Japan, and Germany may cut foreign-service rotations by a year due to health concerns. The filthy air is “unacceptable,” justices on the Delhi High Court stated last month, as they sought to prod the government into action on airborne pollutants that, in addition to creating grave asthma and health concerns, may even one day discolor the white marble of the Taj Mahal.

Globally, the air pollution problem is almost certainly worse than anyone understands. One widely cited survey by the World Health Organization that purports to list the world’s most polluted cities (if you’re keeping score, India boasts 13 of the top 20) is, in fact, incomplete. Read the fine print, and you’ll find, for example, that many big and fast-growing cities in Africa, like Lagos, Nigeria, don’t even appear on the list. That’s because in these places there are few reliable on-the-ground monitors, which are expensive, to assess how polluted the air is.

What we need, then, is more and better data. Measuring air pollution levels is a vital first step toward making the truly difficult decisions necessary to fix the problem, such as how and when to shut off highly polluting coal plants or restrict the number of cars on the road. Working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the State Department will soon begin helping the governments of India, Vietnam, and Mongolia collect more reliable data.

But fighting dirty air — which has justifiably become a top priority in much of the developing world — cannot become a substitute for fixing global warming, which remains the world’s overriding environmental concern. The two goals are often conflated: China’s watershed deal with the United States last November to cut climate-warming emissions, for example, was widely attributed to its newfound interest in cleaning up dirty air. That is undoubtedly true. But the problem is that the solutions for dirty air and climate change do not fit neatly into the same box. These are two different but overlapping problems, requiring different but overlapping solutions.

The reason is chemistry: Pollutants that cause premature death and respiratory misery, like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury, and fine particles, are different from those — like carbon dioxide and methane — that cause global warming. Some pollutants affect both air quality and climate by virtue of their different properties and the way they react with other chemicals. But for a government that wants to fix both climate change and air pollution, it’s better to target the specific pollutants that affect each problem, rather than to rely on fighting air pollution as a proxy in the battle against climate change, as Dave Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defense Council says.

There is, unquestionably, plenty of potential overlap in taking on the twin challenges of air pollution and climate change. On the motivational side, once people recognize the severity of conventional air pollution, this understanding can provide a powerful incentive for action to clean up the broader environment, which can include battling climate change. Even the rich and powerful, try as they might, cannot insulate themselves from dirty air, as they do from other environmental problems. They can live far from gritty highways and purchase air purifiers and masks, but that only goes so far. (The white surgical face masks that have proliferated across Asia, for example, make little difference to health because dirty air seeps in through the edges of the masks.) That creates pressure to fix things quickly.

On the engineering side, building more-efficient factories and vehicles and switching from coal to renewable or nuclear power to generate electricity can cut warming-linked pollutants like carbon dioxide, as well as fine particles and noxious gases. This has happened in the United States, as transportation emissions have fallen in recent years, in part because people are driving more fuel-efficient vehicles. (That said, a rapid rise in vehicle purchases, like what we’re seeing in India and China, can easily trump gains from energy efficiency.) Similarly, the long-term decline in the use of coal for electricity generation in the United States is leading to a reduction in carbon dioxide, the principal cause of global warming.

But cleaning up dirty air doesn’t necessarily do that much for the climate — it matters how you cut pollution. Slapping sulfur dioxide scrubbers onto coal plants, a common means of keeping one major lung-damaging pollutant out of the air, is not an effective way to cut carbon emissions, for example. “[S]imply scrubbing end-of-pipe emissions does next to nothing to reduce [carbon dioxide],” writes Valerie Karplus, head of the Tsinghua-MIT China Energy and Climate Project, in a new study published by the Paulson Institute, a think tank at the University of Chicago.

Switching from coal to natural gas to generate electricity — another popular solution for cleaning the air in urban areas — is also “a bit of a dead end from a climate perspective,” cautions Rachel Cleetus, climate policy manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists. Although natural gas burns cleaner than coal, leaks in the extraction and transportation processes can spray methane into the atmosphere, and methane is a far more potent (though shorter-lived) greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Just how much methane escapes into the atmosphere due to natural gas production and use is a subject of intense debate and research; in other words, gas is better than coal, but just how much better is still unknown.

Renewables are the best option, says Cleetus, whose group also has serious concerns about nuclear power. And indeed, India and China are aggressively building out solar and wind energy, though because of their huge needs — India has several hundred million citizens who lack electricity to begin with — they are also investing in coal-fired plants.

The best way to address climate change, Karplus argues in her paper, is to put a national price on carbon, by means of a trading system or a tax. That would accelerate the transition away from coal, as opposed to simply scrubbing it for sulfur dioxide or other health-threatening pollutants. And China may be starting to do just that. It has begun implementing a number of regional cap-and-trade programs, which include a price on carbon, though no national program is yet in place. In a hopeful sign for both the climate and healthy air, coal production and use fell in China in 2014 for the first time in 14 years, due partly to growing concerns about air pollution.

But maintaining that trajectory and expanding it to coal-hungry India and other countries will not come easily, given their vast appetites for energy. Karplus’s paper notes that as the price of coal drops along with falling demand, it becomes easier and cheaper to simply maintain those plants with better, conventional air-pollution controls, rather than swapping coal for a different, more climate-friendly fuel. It’s a worrisome thought, but one that will be crucial for monitoring future progress on climate as more countries — perhaps even India — commit to a cooler climate and cleaner air.

The sickeningly polluted air in big cities across the developing world can be a spur for the rich and middle class to take up the mantle of cleaning things up. But for real change to happen for the climate, simply scrubbing coal plants isn’t enough.

Photo credit: STR/AFP

Kate Galbraith is a San Francisco-based journalist who writes about energy and climate issues. She is co-author of The Great Texas Wind Rush. Twitter: @kategalbraith

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