For those who cannot grasp the extent to which pollution can actually cause harm, how about this: an 8-year-old with lung cancer. Breaking the record as China’s youngest lung cancer patient, the child’s case brings to the forefront the high costs and risks of rapid economic development without carbon emission regulation. She was exposed to tiny atmospheric particulate matter from human activity that was dense around her roadside home, including transportation and industrial operations.
Frightening, but not unique: According to the World Health Organization, more than half of pollution-caused lung cancer deaths occur in East Asia, and officials at the China Ministry of Health report that lung cancer deaths in China have increased fourfold in 30 years.
The case is indicative of the deterioration to which China’s cities are vulnerable and the lack of oversight that caused the child’s cancer. It should provide insight into the need for global interjection to ensure that environmental regulation plays a key role in developing countries’ growth plans.
The world did not confront China’s lack of energy regulation or recognize potential consequences. When China enacted the $586 billion stimulus package in 2008 that allowed it to soar economically through the global recession, it became the largest exporter in the world, and has averaged a 10 percent growth in gross domestic product for the past 30 years.
But that growth comes with negative externalities. According to a 2013 report by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, China contributes 29 percent – compared to the United States at 15 percent – to total global carbon emissions. While the U.S. and the European Union found a decrease in carbon emissions from 2011-2012, China continued to increase, albeit at a “slower” rate of 3 percent.
If we delve deeper than the nationwide measurements, of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, 16 of them are in China.
In allowing massive urban growth spurred by similar pushes like China’s stimulus packages in 2008, the country has cost itself too much in both the health of its people and its efficiency.
According to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study in 2012 that analyzed the costs of health impacts from particulate matter, pollution came with a quantified cost to the Chinese economy of $112 billion in 2005 alone. Compare that to a $22 billion cost in 1975.
The study found two main causes for the increase in pollution costs: growing urbanization and higher incomes that increased cost of both labor lost and leisure. In other words, growth; in historical examinations, we see growth and economic development always noted with population shifts to cities and higher wages for citizens.
But when this growth happens very quickly, things get dirty – literally. Urban Chinese citizens across the country suffer daily on their commutes to work; on some days, public transportation is pointless because drivers cannot see. Especially in northern China, where central heating is set to operate for the duration of winter, grey smog is likely to remain and cause further complications.
Recent attempts to curb intense industrial city pollution are entering the discussion too late. China has recently implemented various measures that include more transparency, a reduction of emissions and emergency response plans for heavy pollution.
But before, or even a little bit after, the nation started to grow at an exponential rate, China should have adopted and explored alternative energy solutions to ensure long-term sustainability and safety for its citizens. In regulation through raising the production cost to industries for carbon-emissions, it could have protected itself and avoided what is now a dark and smog-ridden reality.