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Urban Pollution Abatement in China

+ Brandon Fuller

Brad Plumer has an interesting post about Deutsche Bank’s new report on air pollution in China. Without reform, Deutsche Bank estimates that China’s already high levels of PM2.5 could worsen by another 70% by 2025, with all the attendant consequences for public health. But there’s good news in the report as well. By pursuing reform now, China can achieve cleaner air and water without sacrificing economic growth.

The report contains several policy recommendations including: reducing the growth of coal consumption, installing scrubbers for coal-fired power plants, improving fuel efficiency for vehicles, reducing the number of passenger cars on the road, and making more use of cleaner energy sources such as natural gas, nuclear, hydro, wind, and solar.

The big hurdles for China aren’t economic or technological, the authors say. They’re political. Until now, China’s policies to rein in pollution have largely been “piecemeal and uncoordinated.” That will have to change.

And there are signs that it might. A new working paper (gated) from Siqi Zheng, Matt Kahn, Weizeng Sun, and Danglun Luo looks at the political economy of pollution abatement in China’s cities and suggests that there is reason for cautious optimism.

When it comes to greening China’s cities, mayors are feeling greater pressure from above and below. As urban China grows richer and better educated its demand for environmental quality grows as well. The central government seems to be getting the message. It now considers specific targets for energy efficiency and pollution reduction when weighing the promotion of mayors.

China’s urban residents are also finding better ways to access information about air and water pollution. Independent monitoring, a more liberalized local media, and new mediums such as micro blogs are weakening the government’s monopoly on information disclosure and people are using greater information transparency to apply pressure from below. 

Protests about local pollution levels are on the rise and mayors appear to be responsive. The more a city’s residents care about environmental quality the quicker its officials have been to address energy efficiency and pollution. Even if mayors in such cities are more concerned about political stability (another criterion for promotion) than the green agenda, they will still respond with policies that lead to healthier, cleaner, and more livable cities.

If such pressure from the top and the bottom continues, Deutsche Bank’s pollution abatement suggestions may be taken up with even greater zeal. From the Zheng et al:

The rise of China’s “green cities” would directly improve quality of life for hundreds of millions of people. This optimistic view hinges on rising middle class demand for quality of life, increased information transparency that encourages the accountability of governments and firms, and the inclusion of environmental indicators that have a direct impact on urban quality of life in the local politicians’ performance criteria.

Update: Here’s an ungated copy of the working paper.

Tile image by urbangarden

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