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Shawn Swaney

I'll admit that when I see pictures from Asia and the people are wearing masks, I tend to over-exaggerate it. I always had assumed the masks were solely used to protect from things like avian flu when there was an outbreak. Seeing the pictures in the article and looking up a few more on my own, it is crazy to think that these people are living and breathing this air. You can barely see in the before/after picture, I can only imagine how hard it would be to get a breath of clean air.

I'm glad that the new leadership that the article talks about is conscious and aware about the environmental status of their land. Realistically it won't get to a pristine level of cleanliness quickly,. Hopefully they will walk the walk after they've been apparently talking the talk for the past year.

Holley Beasley

I can't wrap my head around the fact that the Chinese government has let air pollution reach this level at which it is compared to "living in an airport smoking lounge". Flanagan says Chinese leaders have spoken about improving the environment of the mainland..as if it's even a question? I found myself wondering how the Chinese stand it; I don't know if I would be able to. At the same time, increasing numbers of American children are being diagnosed with asthma, an issue that wasn't so prevalent fifty years ago. Yet, our government isn't taking a strong stand to reverse this growing problem. Maybe it isn't so different after all. When I went home over Feb break I got into a few little debates with my dad, who has never driven anything but a fuel-inefficient Chevrolet truck and seems to fall into the frustrating category of people who just don't believe in global climate change. Despite the obvious decline in environmental quality that shows up almost everywhere we look, too many Americans are ignoring all the warning signals and feel no need to change their daily lifestyles. If the Chinese example of "living in an airport smoking lounge" is what happens when people ignore the warning signs until it is too late, I am worried about what's in store for America's future. I guess I better enjoy my time outside while I can.

Katherine Rush

I agree with Holley that although this air quality problem is happening geographically far away from us, it should be a major source of concern in America. We read earlier this year that PMs are very difficult to monitor and regulate. But they can obviously create extremely dangerous living conditions that affect the health of anyone who goes outside. Reading this article reminded me of how Beijing enacted strict regulations on driving leading up to the 2008 Olympics. I found this article, discussing the results of reducing traffic and therefore carbon emissions: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/07/120724144431.htm

Although this article does not specifically mention the change in particulate matter, we know PMs are emitted from fossil fuel-burning cars. Decreasing the amount of cars on the road clearly helped the air quality during the Olympics, as intended by the policy makers. I wonder if this strategy could be permanently reinstated to help combat the air quality issue, or if that would be too difficult to sustain for long periods of time. Either way, obviously something must be done not only in Beijing, but in other major cities where pollution is becoming this extreme.

Cort Hammond

The off-the-charts pollution (and the resulting unrest) is what is forcing China to at least take steps towards reducing pollution. As mentioned on Tuesday, the proposed carbon tax is quite the commitment considering China’s past record on being unwilling to commit to reducing emissions. It is likely that China hopes that a tax on carbon will in effect be a tax on all forms of pollution and will result in better air quality. The Washington Post has an article that describes the ups and downs of China’s proposed tax: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/02/21/china-may-soon-get-a-carbon-tax-but-will-it-make-any-difference/

At first, I was surprised and impressed that China had taken the initiative to solve its pollution problems. However, if this article is correct the tax is unlikely to have much of an effect. It is estimated that tax will start at $1.60 per ton of carbon and eventually go to $8 by 2020. In many of the articles we have read, estimates for the costs of carbon (to which the tax should be set equal) range from $20-$80. And this is just for the carbon-related damages. If China hopes to lower its smog-contributing pollution the costs are even higher than those estimated for carbon. As a consequence, the tax will not drive firms to abate at anywhere near the optimal level.

Ultimately, this article points out many of the pitfalls that plague emissions reduction programs with economic incentives. The article points to the pervasive loopholes that mark the lack of a comprehensive emission verification program. This is a hopeful step because it may bring the world one step closer to cooperation; perhaps the US can be convinced to follow suit and outdo China. Another issue is that China has not decided to go all in which means that there may be uncertainty over what to expect in the short term. Rather than reducing pollution using a single comprehensive tax, command and control policies have been announced.


A PM2.5 reading of 516 is personally unfathomable. With levels so high, I can confidently assume that many elderly and individuals with cardiopulmonary condition died. The current Beijing index at the time of this blog post is 39—a drop between then and now of nearly 110% (as the title implies). The recommendation for levels up to 500 sounds apocalyptic as no one should engage in any physical activity and all ailing individuals, children, and elderly should not leave their homes. I imagine that any additional amount over 500 is exponentially more detrimental than the previous unit. The implication is that no one should go outside regardless of health and even then wearing masks indoors is prudent. Not only does the health of individuals suffer in such a situation, but economic consequences also exist, as workers are unable to perform tasks. One can safely assume that sandstorm inflicted irreversible damages across the board.

Another aspect of this report that stood out is that even ostensibly benign particles like sand can still cause tremendous harm when combined with the existing below average air quality in major Chinese cities. I would also venture to suggest that these power winds were likely exaggerated by anthropogenic climate change. The chances of feasibly reversing the existence of such events are slipping away, particularly in China where the government acts as it pleases. One thing is for certain, everyone was coughing and Thursday and they should expect do some more in the future.


Cort brings up a relevant point, about economic incentives. It's one thing to be shocked and grossed out by air quality, it's another to present the issue as an economic one. The biggest consideration, to me, is that of productivity. In class Professor Casey explained that many US firms looking for outsourcing labor and manufacturing are skipping over Mexico for China because of the heightened productivity China offers. But the issues Flanagan mentions in the article--air pollution, water quality, and soil contamination-- scream out productivity issues. Workers won't be able to work as much, soil won't be as fruitful, and firms can't use contaminated water without cleaning it. So the production possibility graph we've looked at in class will shift down, because capital won't yield as much output. And if China wants to keep its edge over Mexico, it needs to deal with these issues. And bringing about this change won't come from imploring companies to do so--like how car companies invented the SUV to skirt US car emissions regulations. Companies and consumers need to see the economic benefit in changing their ways.

Sommer Ireland

Talking about the stabilization wedges in class the other day, and looking at the charts of carbon dioxide emissions, it was no surprise that China was leading the pack. Granted the conditions in Beijing were severely worsened by the sandstorm, but from looking at the pictures of the city, even with a sandstorm they shouldn't have looked so bad. I would hate to have to walk around Lexington with a mask on all the time, but if the air quality was anything like that of Beijing, I would have to or I wouldn't feel safe. Particles that large can cause significant damage to the lungs, as the article stated, it's comparable to living in an airport smoking lounge. I was impressed with Beijing's attempts to clean up the city and air around the 2008 olympics, but it appears that it was a short term effort, nothing strong enough to solve a long term problem. However it is comforting that China's new leaders have discussed improving the mainland's environment, so hopefully some stricter regulations will be put into place. For the sake of people's health, some drastic changes need to occur. A PM2.5 getting lodged in my lungs doesn't seem like a very pleasant experience, and I can't imagine that the Chinese are ok with that either.

Paul R

China's current state portrays several costs. Leaders in the party should consult economists in order to decide just how much it should use to fund environmental cleanup efforts(wedges). China has to focus not only on environmental problems but also social frustrations. Its new leaders were not elected by the people and maybe if they were leaders would be focused more on environmental issues. Any abatement cost function would need to take into account the medical costs associated with the particulates. The article also explains how due to the low visibility highways, airports, and trains were shut down. This probably cost millions if not billions of dollars for small businesses and the government itself.
On a sad not for humanity people seem shocked that this kind of environmental decay could occur... but China is not the only country experiencing air quality problems. An American voter doesn't have to fly to the far east to see just as bad air quality. Simply drive to Atlanta during the summer... and you might wanna order your Chinese made mask before you visit.

Haley Miller

Wow. What stronger evidence of the need for environmental action does the world need before we take action? Although the smog and dust were due to a sandstorm, they provided a visual-to-the-naked-eye look at what is in the air, although there are even more dangerous, non-visible particles present. Pollution is not "debatable" like climate change (at least in Congress). It is visible and is clearly linked to adverse health effects and economic effects. I sincerely hope the new administration in China works towards bettering the environment for the health of the population. I wonder where the dust eventually settled and how the water quality was affected.

Gyung Jeong

Does anyone remember 2008 Beijing Olympics? It was one of the biggest events that China had ever hosted. Because it was an extravagant event, China spent a lot of money. However, unlike other countries that previously hosted the Olympics whose main focus was either fighting against terrorism or building infrastructure, China’s main concern was air pollution. They tried everything, like not driving on certain days, to make sure that at least the air quality during the Olympics would improve. This example really portrays the air pollution problem with China. It has reached a level where one-third of the urban population breathes the contaminated air and, as a result, lung cancer is the number one cause of death in China. According to EIA, the coal consumption in China alone has reached the consumption level equal to that of the rest of the world (about 47% of the world’s coal consumption). This statistic is the reason why air pollution level is “beyond index”. Fortunately, it seems China is aware of the situation now. As Professor Casey said in class, China now requires tax on carbon emission. In this way, they can possibly reduce air pollution and improve air quality. However, the problem is that it will take a long time.

Katja Kleine

I was personally interested in this article for the reasons that Gyung and Katherine bought up. I had many friends study abroad in the early summer in 2008. They were all athletes and mostly cross country runners. Despite China's cleanup efforts, they were disgusted by the air quality at that time. They said they literally could not run outside without getting dizzy or feeling sick. If those are the short term effects, it is very scary to think about the long term effects of living in that environment.
BUT, I think that we can learn a lot about what China did for the Olympics. The Olympics generate revenue and are a good way to improve global standing (especially the second for China). And look at the efforts they made to improve pollution and air quality for that? I think that this is proof that economic incentives can be effective. When faced with a lot of gain, China put up the cost to reduce pollution and improve air quality. Similarly, it shows how stigmas and social pressure can sometimes play a large role in environmental policy. Of course, this was a short term solution, but if there was a way to create similar incentives both socially and economically we may encourage other countries (and ourselves) to put up the money to address environmental issues.

Courtney Ridenhour

Katy brings up an excellent point about the effect of air pollution on productivity. High PM levels also have implications for health impacts. An MIT study published in March 2011 looked at changes in PM from 1975 to 2005 and their corresponding health costs. In 1975, costs were around $22 billion. In 2005, they had quintupled to $112 billion. It’s important to note that because of China’s rapidly expanding economy, health damage costs from air pollution are proportionally smaller than they were in 1975. I’d be interested to see how PM levels have changed since MIT conducted their research, and how damage costs have varied with a growing population.

Here’s the link to the MIT Study: http://globalchange.mit.edu/research/publications/2142

Maggie Antonsen

I went to China for a month in 2008 before the Olympics. I remember when I first landed in Beijing I could barely breathe. For two days I had such terrible coughing it was almost like bronchitis, with coughing fits lasting over 4 minutes. My friend went to the same boarding school as me and lived in China. She told me every time she went home, she had to wear a mask and gargle salt water every hour for the first week she was home, until her lungs got accustomed to the level of air pollution. I think that it is absurd for your lungs to have to become "accustomed" to the air pollution. The fact that pollution has gotten even worse since then really should be a wake up call. I agree with Haley that something needs to be done soon. We need to be more aggressive in educating people about the environmental consequences of our actions and trying to find ways to cut back on pollution and improve the air quality.

Charles Busch

For many people, it is probably difficult to see the negative externalities of emissions manifest themselves in their every day lives. Certainly, climate change will become more of an issue as time goes on (especially if it is not confronted now). However, this example of "beyond index" air pollution in Beijing is an explicit instance of how the emissions that we are pumping into the air are already reaching a critical level. If these levels of pollution are sustained in China, they will undoubtedly contribute to global climate change on a large scale, which will have quantifiable economic impacts. As other people have mentioned, the Chinese government could also have to deal with the incidence of respiratory illnesses in its population of citizens who are exposed to increasingly severe levels of air pollution.
I recently read an article in The Economist regarding the levels of soot in the air in Beijing. The article suggests that curbing the emissions of black carbon (soot)alone could save 2.4 million lives per year. Moreover, due to the short amount of time that black carbon stays in the atmosphere, it is easier to confront black carbon levels than CO2 levels. I think that aggressively trying to limit soot emissions could be an effective short term way to improve air quality in places like Beijing.

Julia Murray

I thought it was very interesting that when discussing the frustrated response to China's continue pollution problems, Flanagan mentions that while Chinese social media was flooded with negative reactions, "irritation over the long-brewing issue was perhaps best summed up by a viral photo originally posted on popular Web portal QQ.com of an unhappy looking Yao Ming, grimacing at the Beijing sky." This comment relates back to our discussion in class of how and where the general public gets their information about climate change and other climate issues. Just as people are more likely to listen to Leonardo DiCaprio about climate change than they are an educated scientist, Flanagan seems to think that more people will pay attention to China's air pollution problems if they hear that Yao Ming is concerned. While this idea is troubling, it is certainly true. In order to get the public to care about these issues, maybe it would help if other famous athletes, actors, singers and other stars tweeted about them or spoke about them publicly. While this is obviously not the best way to ensure that the public is informed with complete and accurate information, it may be the best way to peek their interest and motivate them to act.

Ellison Johnstone

Reading this article and all the comments everyone has made, I'm honestly shocked at just how severe the air quality problem is in China. Although I had heard and read about air quality issues there, I definitely did not realize their extent. Reading first hand accounts from some of my classmates really brings the problem to life and adds a very personal touch on how environmental issues are seriously limiting the lives of people living in China. I think that environmental issues are often hard to grasp because many times they are "invisible," but in this case it is quite the opposite. The issue is explicitly displayed, impossible to escape from seeing. Because of this, it seems even more shocking to us that so little has been done to help prevent such pollution. This is obviously a sentiment that many previous comments have addressed, but it is nonetheless a very significant one to think about. As Holley mentioned, it is also very difficult not to begin to question what is going on in our own country when we start questioning the action that has been taken (or better said, not taken) in China. The problem may be more visible and widespread in China, but we all know there are huge environmental issues in the U.S. as well (not to mention really bad air quality in many cities throughout the U.S.). I think a very important take-away message is that we need global cooperation to fight against environmental damage and climate change. It is easy for us to look at the problem in China and blame them, but much more difficult to examine how the U.S. is equally ignorant about many of the environmental issues it has as well as the need for collective action with nations such as China.

Hampton Ike

The statistics offered in this article are shocking and terrifying to me, and from the comments many others as well. However, it cannot be exceedingly surprising that dust storms, particulate matter, and poor air quality are becoming more prevalent. Global warming both through emissions and unsustainable agricultural practices seem to have teamed up China's most recent event. Desertification of land is rapidly increasing particularly in Africa, but as evident by this event it is taking place in China as well. Ground sediments loosened by slash and burn agriculture, emissions, and the deserts they produce can travel large distances. China is not the only country that experiences particulate matter, but considering the levels measured by the US embassy it seems they may experience some of the worst events. The local effects of pollution are forcing the government to take actions, but the question is how quickly solutions can be implemented and benefits be seen. As has been mentioned above, this issue can not be looked at as geographically constrained. The effects of Chinese pollution effect the world everyday, as do the emissions of the United States. A global approach must be taken to limit pollution, and move towards renewable and cleaner energy sources. The structure of the Chinese government lends itself well to swift legislative solutions, and as Professor Casey stated they are imposing taxes and moving towards safer energy sources. However, the backlash over air quality during the 2008 olympics and subsequent policy attempts to clean it up seem to have either been temporal or simply inadequate. This is a wake up call for the China and the world; business as usual is no longer an option, steps need to be taken globally to address climate change.

Daniel Molon

The pollution levels seen in China should be used as a warning for politicians as to what could happen here if we fail to address our pollution issue. This should help sway politicians towards action, and it should prove the dangerous path our country is on in terms of pollution. The estimates of reducing air pollution costing us 1% of GDP seems to be a worthwhile proposition, if it would mean that we would not have days in which our economy would have to shut down, because of it being too detrimental to one’s health to go outside. I think it sounds like an option that China would gladly take if they could go back and implement it when their pollution levels were at the level ours are at now. Some politicians do not want to begin a pollution cutting program that could hurt our economic productivity, given we are just getting out of a recession; however, in the long term it appears to be the more economical solution, than to wait until our pollution levels get “beyond index” like China’s.

Scott Diamond

China is no stranger to pollution as their water supply and food sources are riddled with toxins, but of paramount concern is the deterioration of the country’s air quality. According the officials PM2.5 particles were 516 ppm, which is astounding considering that scientists consider any ppm range of 301 or above to be hazardous due to the ability to cause serious aggravation of the heart or lung. The health effects from this are most significant for elderly individuals and those with any cardiopulmonary disease; these individuals in particular face a serious risk of premature mortality. According to a recent article, Los Angeles, another city notorious for its air pollution, recorded 43 ppm of PM2.5 at its highest point. Although I was acutely aware of China’s pollution issues prior to this class, I am astounded by how severe the pollution levels really are. With the delegates of the National People’s Congress meeting this week in Beijing, one can only hope that these issues will not be overlooked.

Emily Foggo

After reading this article, I could not help but imagine our Earth as it was depicted in the opening scenes of Disney Pixar's Wall-e. When I first saw the movie in high school, I remember thinking to myself that it would take hundreds of years for humans to have such a detrimental effect of planet Earth, but now, I’m not so sure. With Chinese air quality at 516 ppm of PM2.5 it seems that we are quickly accelerating towards to point of no return for our environment.

The statistics coming out of the U.S. Embassy in China should serve as a wake up call to politicians and citizens alike who do not believe that we as humans are having a detrimental effect on our planet. As members of an international community, where environmental concerns have a global impact, we must take action now to stop or slow the deterioration of our planet. After all, I really don’t want to end up like the humans in Wall-e, floating around in space because earth was too polluted to be inhabited.

Account Deleted

I agree with Shawn that prior to reading this article and taking this class in general, I thought the mask-wearing in China and Japan was excessive. Personally now I would probably be buying them in bulk, particularly for my grandparents were they to live in that environment.

I agree with others that while the carbon tax that China has imposed does begin to get the incentives right, it's small. Interestingly, it is also just a carbon tax while this pollution is for the smaller particles that are damaging. It might make sense to even target these particles in particular. Perhaps Beijing and these areas will offer us some indicators of the negative effects that happen in an environment with that kind of pollution.

Sasha Doss

I reviewed some of the comments above and generally agree with their content. It’s great news that provided enough incentive, e.g. the Olympics, China was able to reduce air pollution. However, that is a pretty large incentive. I think it would be difficult to continuously put that much social pressure on China, especially without it then being placed on the U.S. The recent sandstorm discussed in this article served to point out the general discontent with the country’s air quality. I think that the new carbon tax is not necessarily a response to this event in particular, but it is a response to the disgruntlement of its constituents on the subject of air quality. Although once again this policy decision lacks punctuality, it does seem like a step in the right direction.

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