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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.

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