Today it was 26C in Tokyo, and we had our first taste of this year’s yellow dust, the strange and nasty pollution that tends to drift over Japan from China during spring and summer. Today’s was the worst I have ever seen in 5 years in Japan – the above photograph, taken from my ground floor balcony, shows the sky at about 3pm today, just after the cloud reached us. Apparently in Matsue, in Western Japan, visibility was down to 5 km. In case this seems like a strange thing to care about, let me assure you this “weather” is not pleasant: it causes sneezing, eye irritation, headaches and drowsiness in many people when it is at its worst, and I think some towns in Kyushu issued alerts that would cause some people to stay inside (especially those with respiratory problems). The US army monitors this phenomenon in Korea and issues regular warnings. Of particular recent concern is the increasing concentration of what the Japanese call “PM2.5,” very small particles of pollutants of size less than 2.5 microns, which seem to arise from industrial pollution and smog, and have specific associated health concerns. According to the Global Burden of Disease 2010, Ambient PM Pollution is the 4th biggest cause of lost disability-adjusted life years in China, and ranks much higher as a cause of years of life lost than of years of disability. By way of comparison it is ranked 16 in Australia and 10 in the USA.
Some part of the yellow dust problem is natural, due to sandstorms in the interior of China, but in the past 10 years the problem has become worse and its health effects more significant. No doubt part of the concern about its health effects arises from greater awareness, but there is also a confluence of factors at work in China that create the problem: desertification, soil erosion and pollution, and industrial pollution due primarily to coal power and transport. It’s becoming increasingly clear that as China develops, it needs to make a shift away from coal power and personal transportation, and it needs to do it soon. No matter how bad the yellow dust is in Japan, it has become very bad in China, and concern is growing about the seriousness of its health and economic effects.
This puts China on the horns of a dilemma. Development is essential to the improvement of human health, but the path China has taken to development, and the rapidity of its industrial and economic growth, are seriously affecting environmental quality. It’s possible that China is the canary in the coalmine of western development, and may be the first country to find its economic goals running up against its environmental constraints – and this despite a rapid slowing in population growth. China is going to have to start finding ways to reverse desertification, soil erosion, and particulate pollution, because it cannot afford to continue losing marginal farmland, degrading the quality of its farmland, and basing its industrial and urban growth on highly-polluting fossil fuels.
This raises the possibility that China needs to introduce a carbon tax (or better still, a carbon-pricing system) for reasons largely unrelated to global warming. A carbon pricing system with options for purchasing offsets, linked into the EU market, would potentially encourage reforestation and reductions/reversals in the rate of desertification; it would also provide economic incentives for investments in non-fossil fuel-based energy sources, probably nuclear for the long term and renewables for the short term. The government, by selling off permits, would be able to raise money to help manage the infrastructure and health needs of the poorest rural areas most in need of immediate development. These effects are important even without considering the potential huge benefits for the world from China slowing its CO2 emissions. I notice I’m not alone in this idea; Rabett Run has a post outlining the same environmental issues, and suggesting that there are many direct economic and social benefits of such a system.
This is not just of practical importance to China, but it’s rhetorically a very useful thing to note: that a lot of carbon sources (and most especially coal) have huge negative health and social consequences in their own right; raising the cost of using them and finding financial incentives to prevent or reverse deforestation is of huge benefit for a lot more reasons than just preventing runaway climate change. It would be cute indeed if China’s immediate economic and environmental problems became the cause of strong action to prevent climate change; on the other hand, it would be very sad if the focus on the AGW aspects of carbon pricing – which are a shared international burden rather than a national responsibility – led China’s decision makers to miss the other vital environmental problems it can address. Especially if failure to address those other environmental problems caused China’s economic growth and social liberalization to stall or fall backwards.
If any country is going to run up against environmental limits to growth, it is China; and if China can avoid that challenge, and the social and health problems it will cause, then there is great hope for the future of the planet. So let’s hope the Chinese can come to terms with their growing environmental challenges as adroitly as they have dealt with some of their others … and if their efforts to tackle those problems will benefit the rest of the world too.