Polemic on Pollution
Policy Forum 5 (November 2018)
I should start this article with a disclaimer. It is slightly unscientific in that it depends a lot on personal experience and anecdotal evidence. Ever since I moved to China, the first question I hear when going home to Germany or visiting the US is “How is the pollution?”, “Can you breathe there?” or “Isn’t’ the smog dangerous for your kids?”. So this is the reply, both of a person who actually likes his home and dislikes people focusing only on the negatives, and the economist who believes that people make a serious lapse in judgment when it comes to pollution and China.
First of all, I have to admit, there are bad days when nobody who can avoid it goes out and where a walk in the park feels like smoking a pack of cigarettes. Yet, overall it seems to me the relevance of smog for everyday life is hugely overrated. A quick internet search will give you some shocking numbers. You can read that the reliance on coal reduces life expectancy by five to six years. Of course, you can also read, that smoking reduces Chinese life expectancy about seven to eight years. However, Chinese life expectancy is only about two years short of the US life expectancy, which means that without smoking and smog Chinese life expectancy would tower over the US by more than a decade? This could only be explained by an exceptionally healthy Chinese lifestyle or an incredibly good medical system. I can tell you that Chinese food is not healthy (which is why I love it) and I have serious doubts that the medical system is that much better than in the West, so in short, those numbers don’t add up.