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When Pollution Solutions Can Actually Damage the Environment

China is turning air quality into a major political issue, but cheap and fast fixes may do more harm than good.

Photo by High Contrast via Wikimedia Commons

China’s devastating pollution crisis has taken heavy tolls, both on humans and the environment. Scientists estimate as many as 500,000 people die prematurely in China each year because of the dirty air. Last week, a self-funded documentary about the problem went viral. Made by one of China’s most famous TV journalists in the style of An Inconvenient Truth, more than 300 million Chinese people (about a fifth of the population) watched the documentary in a week, underscoring the gravity many citizens already felt about smoggy skies and the danger to health. Many feel the danger so palpably that recent years have seen pollution protests grow violent. Responding in part to this pressure, China's government has erected a framework to roll back smoggy days and polluted skies. However, a paper released by the Paulson Institute in February warns that if China focuses only on improving air quality, it may actually increase carbon emissions in the country. A narrow approach to staving off pollutants in the short term might contribute to the long-term effects of climate change.

“When you run pollutant removal equipment, you require energy, but this equipment doesn’t do anything to reduce CO2,” says Valerie Karplus, author of the paper and an assistant professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “The net effect of running pollution control equipment could result—I’m not saying it will—but could result in a scenario where you’re actually emitting more CO2 than you would have been had you not been running the pollution control equipment.”

One prong in China’s plan to fight pollution involves cutting back on coal, and in 2014, the country successfully reduced its total coal usage. But because coal is cheap and the most abundant source of energy in the country, as efforts to replace it increase, so will costs to the economy. Switching to cleaner energies, at the moment, is not cheap, so regulators could very well turn to technologies that only address air quality. These “end of pipe” technologies, which are relatively inexpensive to install and run, are already in place in China, but are likely to become more widely used as switching from coal becomes more expensive. Chemicals like sulfur oxide (SO2) or nitrogen oxides (NOx), byproducts of combusting coal, create complex reactions to form fine particulate matter, (particles 2.5 micrometers in diameter) which can severely impact health. To weed out SO2 and NOx, among other chemicals, facilities put scrubbers up on smokestacks. These scrub out pollutants before they bubble out into breathable air. They are, however, energy intensive—energy that requires fossil fuels.

Comparison photos of Beijing on a smoggy and a clear day. Photo by Bobak via Wikimedia Commons

“When choosing to scrub pollutants, you forego alternative strategies—such as deploying nuclear or renewable energy—that would reduce carbon and air pollutant emissions at the same time” Karplus said.

The paper suggests that putting a price on carbon can play an important role in successfully addressing both climate change and air quality. The idea is that, whether through a carbon tax or in an emissions trading system (ETS), a carbon price will incentivize companies that rely on carbon-intensive fuels to switch over to cleaner energy sources. This strategy encourages air quality fixes that are aligned with climate change mitigation. In theory, a price on carbon will make the transition out of coal and fossil fuel-intensive sources an economically viable process. China has already established seven regional carbon markets, with a plan to go national by 2016. And putting a price on carbon has already been effective elsewhere in the world—Europe reduced its overall CO2 output thanks in part to its own ETS, while California has a statewide system in place.

Pollution in China isn’t a new problem. Beijing frequently scores above 300 on the air quality index, a scale that officially stops at 500. These levels rarely appear anywhere in the US, and when they do, it’s usually because of a wildfire. But it seems like, in recent years, China has turned a corner to acknowledge not only air quality but also climate change. The fact that the government—at least until this past Friday, when the propaganda department finally blocked web access—permitted its citizens to watch the documentary at all speaks volumes. The environmental minister called it China’s “Silent Spring,” a 1962 book by Rachel Carson that showed the detrimental effects of pesticides, helping to kick off the environmental movement in the U.S. The popularity of the documentary sent renewable energy and pollutant monitor stocks soaring.

Photo by Nicolò Lazzati via Wikimedia Commons

China’s air quality problems have now seized the public imagination, and its government has been struggling to catch up with what is now seen as a major quality of life issue. But the in-your-face, pressing nature of cleaning up the air people breathe shouldn’t come at the expense of other key environmental metrics, like CO2 emissions. Despite the proliferation of cheap, energy-intensive technologies that deal with air pollution, China is theoretically concerned with cutting back CO2 emissions, as well. In fact, China has a ton of environmental laws on the books, and they continue to be updated. The question is how to enforce them. The EPA has 17,000 or so employees. China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection has about 300.

“They’re being asked to maintain economic growth, even as they reduce pollution,” said Daniel Gardner, a professor of Chinese intellectual history at Smith College. “I think we’re seeing a shift where every decision now is factoring in environmental costs, environmental consequences…For all the pollution in China, for all the challenges they face, I think the government is very good at saying they’re addressing the problems. Whether they can do so effectively is an entirely different matter.”

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