Clean Air is Cheap for the U.S.

February 6, 2015 | 2 min read

In today’s print edition of The Economist, “The Cost of Clean Air” details the other side of the proverbial environmental coin:

Zhang Minsheng, the owner, still gets some business from passing traffic. But the recent closure of nearby rock quarries, because of air-pollution restrictions, has taken its toll. He reckons his monthly income has fallen by 30-40% to around 4,000 yuan ($640). Next door a wholesale coal business has closed. So too have a small family-owned barbecue restaurant and an alcohol, tobacco and grocery store.

To be clear, there is zero doubt in my mind that climate change is both real and caused by humans.

But in the course of the United States’s Industrial Revolution, coal burned dirty and often. Environmental regulations were inmaterial. Simply put, the United States was in many ways like China is now.

Making note of that simple fact—that the U.S. was once in present-day China’s very own shoes—is critical to informing the public debate around environmental regulations. While this doesn’t abolish China and other developing countries of responsibility in the matter of global warming, I do believe that it places the onus on the U.S. and other developed economies to lead the way with new technology and policy. To expect China to match the U.S. in efforts to reduce pollution is to multiply the story from The Economist millions of times over. The Chinese economy, like the U.S.’s did, relies heavily on coal and other environmentally unfriendly practices. While every country plays a role in the solving the climate change crisis, maybe the richest countries—who got their starts burning the same dirty coal—need to bear a larger burden than they currently do.