Is urban air pollution in China rising?

Reports show that air pollution might be growing in China's cities. But could pollution actually drop off as the country continues to develop?

David Gray/Reuters
Visitors to Tiananmen Square shield themselves from the sun with umbrellas on a hot and hazy day in Beijing July 28. China's air pollution increased this year for the first time since 2005, the environmental protection ministry said this week, due to sandstorms, a rise in construction and industrial projects, and more cars, state media reported.

The New York Times claims that China's air pollution is growing worse due to increased motorization, construction, coal burning and general economic growth. But, their article didn't report any data trends. One way to measure air pollution is to use the API = air pollution index.

Using Google, I went to the Chinese Environmental Ministry and found this daily data for Chinese major cities measuring ambient pollution. At least in Beijing this hot summer, there have been 0 API days above 150 and 150 is the threshold for "Lightly Polluted". I encourage you to look at the data for other cities.

I must admit that I have an intellectual stake in this discussion. If you remember reading my 2010 Regional Science and Urban Economics paper on China , Zheng, Liu and I present evidence based on 35 major Chinese cities that several of them (including Beijing) have passed the EKC "turning point" and that we predict that further economic growth will DECREASE their air pollution.

When the media makes a bold claim, I encourage them to present some facts or at least a webpage offering the reader the chance to look up some facts. It appears that the NY Times and the Chinese government have two different sets of facts. Who is telling the truth?

As I have discussed before, my belief is that the following chain of events will occur;

1. China will keep growing and this raises the "value of life" and the "value of not being sick"
2. Coal burning is recognized to elevate local air pollution levels such PM10
3. Elevated PM10 causes extra morbidity and mortality risk for the urban population
4. As #1 rises, the externality damage caused by #3 increases and recognizing this fact will nudge the central government to take steps to clean up the coal fired power plants.

Human capital is the wealth of nations and China can't afford to kill its golden goose with dust from coal fired power plants.

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