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In Beijing and Washington, A Breath of Foul Air

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 21, 2017

Airport ad for a way to breathe in Beijing. (Photo: Richard Conniff)

Airport ad for a way to breathe in Beijing. (Photo: Richard Conniff)

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

When friends cautioned me about Beijing’s notorious air pollution recently, ahead of my first visit there, I brushed it off. It was an old story, and having grown up in northern New Jersey in the era of unregulated industrial air pollution and open garbage burning on the Meadowlands, I figured I could handle it. But I began to have second thoughts on the flight in from the north, when we crossed a mountain ridge and the clear air turned instantly to dense smog. It was still 20 minutes to touchdown.

After a day or two in the city, I felt as if I had taken up cigarettes. Same burned-out feeling at the back of the throat, with bits of airborne grit catching on the epiglottis. Same clearing of the throat by soft coughing. It got worse over the weekend, when regulations limiting cars on the road don’t apply. Coming back into the city on a Sunday afternoon was like a slow apocalypse. The air was a filthy brownish gray, and pedestrians, many of them wearing white face masks, walked hunched over as if through a rainstorm. Buildings emerged ghostlike from the haze a half-mile ahead and vanished again behind.

But I was a novice. It turned out that this was a relatively normal winter day for Beijing, with the air quality index at just 269. That’s rated “very unhealthy” by the World Health Organization, and many times worse than the maximum safe exposure level, but nowhere near those headline-making, sky-darkening days when the Beijing index has topped 700.

Back in New Jersey, the air quality index was generally under 50, and it reminded me how lucky we are to have relatively strong laws and regulations to protect our air. These are the same protections that President Donald J. Trump loudly promised during his campaign to undo on his first day in office. Indeed, the new Republican-dominated House of Representatives this month passed a Regulatory Accountability Act, which will give the new president power to roll back an array of governmental regulations, including 50 years of environmental protections — with as little public notice as possible. It could undermine even the Clean Air Act of 1972 and for the first time oblige regulators to put corporate profits ahead of public health.

The disingenuous logic of this attack

on bedrock environmental law is that clean air is a costly job killer and drives manufacturers overseas. But almost all studies of offshoring have found that domestic companies move abroad for a host of other reasons — mainly lower wages, tax avoidance and easier access to international markets. The cost of environmental regulations typically ranks far down the list.

The cost to business is in any case a secondary issue, as anyone struggling to breathe on the streets of Beijing quickly discovers. The more important costs are the ones the public pays, which are deeply personal, and often permanent: Air pollution kills an estimated 4,400 people every day in China — and, even with our existing regulations, 548 people a day in the United States, according to a 2013 M.I.T. study.

Companies also inevitably overstate the costs, especially when new pollution standards come up for consideration. The great debate in the 1980s, for instance, was about acid rain, the nitric and sulfuric acids from coal-fired power plants that were poisoning the Eastern Seaboard. Some industry opponents of the standards figured reducing these emissions would cost $5.5 billion to $7.1 billion a year — or, as one glib Reagan administration official put it, $6,000 for every pound of fish saved.

In fact, the first five-year phase of the cleanup cost less than $2 billion a year — and produced benefits of more than $118 billion a year, largely in improved human health and productivity. That’s because scrubbing acid-rain pollutants from smokestacks also removes large quantities of fine particle pollution, which otherwise penetrates deep into people’s lungs. The cleanup reduced the incidence of asthma and other illnesses, improved school and workplace attendance rates, and avoided thousands of premature deaths. What Mr. Trump denounced during a campaign speech to West Virginia coal miners as “these ridiculous rules and regulations that make it impossible for you to compete” actually kept Americans alive and made the country more competitive.

You don’t have to look far for other antipollution rules that have cost much less than predicted and produced overwhelmingly beneficial results for the American economy. Indeed, the federal Office of Management and Budget has consistently given its top cost-effectiveness rating to the Environmental Protection Agency, with benefits typically exceeding costs by a 10 to 1 ratio. That’s the same agency Mr. Trump has promised to get rid of “in almost every form.”

Among the E.P.A. measures the Trump administration wants to roll back is the Clean Power Plan, aimed at reducing emissions from coal-fired power plants, which would shift production to gas-fired plants — and incidentally save American lives by further reducing fine particle pollution. The new fuel economy standards for the auto industry would cut gas costs for drivers and clean up the transportation sector that is now this country’s single largest polluter.

E.P.A. regulations make economic sense for two important reasons industry lobbyists (and their hired politicians) overlook when they stage their sky-is-falling complaints about cost. First, the new rules typically drive advances in technology and efficiency, making cost-effective what formerly seemed impossible. The result isn’t a job exodus; it’s a reshuffling, with productivity falling at coal-fired power plants, for instance, but rising at gas-fired power plants. Second, antipollution regulations move us away from the illogical idea that the unsuspecting public at large should pay the cost of pollution. Instead, that cost gets shifted onto the polluters themselves and into the price of the polluting product, exactly where it belongs.

The day I left Beijing last month, the worst smog of the winter was just beginning, with a “red alert” ordering half the city’s private cars off the road, shutting down dusty construction sites and suspending production in factories. Residents were advised to stay indoors. Regardless, old people would die, babies would be born prematurely and at reduced birth weight, and economic output would stumble. (Just a few days ago, China canceled development of more than 100 new coal-fired power plants.)

At the airport, a billboard depicted an improbably healthy young woman, ponytail flying in the breeze, eyes smiling over her face mask. A corrugated plastic tube connected the face mask to a portable oxygen machine strapped to her arm, as she jogged through a city choking on its own growth-at-any-cost philosophy.

My flight home took me in over northern New Jersey, and glancing out the window, I was startled by how clear the air seemed and how even Newark seemed to glitter in the night. Maybe there were people below willing to risk their health for better jobs, and no doubt there were people yearning for a better economy. But the lesson from China is that wrecking the environment is precisely the wrong way to get there.

 

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