Normative Narratives


Transparency Thursday: Climate Change, Pollution, and Premature Death

Smog in central Shanghai. Credit: oliverlaumann/flickr.

Here at Normative Narratives, the negative impacts of Climate Change are always a hot-button issue. In previous posts, I have examined the linkages between climate change and drought / conflict and assessed the sustainability of development in the BRIC countries.

In this assessment, we saw that a disproportionately large amount of total world coal production is in China (49.5%) and India (5.6%). Furthermore, 2/3 of all proposed new coal plants worldwide are in India in China.

In light of these facts, it is alarming when there are reports of record numbers of pollution-related premature deaths in China and India. In 2010, 2.1 million people died prematurely in Asia from pollution-related causes. Including indoor (unclean cooking techniques) and outdoor pollution, pollution is the second most common cause of death in the world after blood pressure.

Before we go any further, I would like to reiterate that these are premature deaths. Perhaps many of these people were not in great health to begin with or led otherwise unhealthy lifestyles–you must view these figures with this in mind and draw your own conclusions.

To put this number (2.1 million) in perspective, in 2000 800,000 people died from pollution related causes in the whole world. There were 6.8 million combat related deaths in the four year span covering WWI, averaging 1.7 million a year. Japan estimates that a total of 440,000 people were killed from atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. People are dying prematurely from pollution in numbers eclipsed only the most egregious events in human history, such as WWII and select genocides.

No wonder China vetoed U.N. R2P action in Syria on sovereignty grounds; there are mass killings in China going unchecked by the government. The numbers are even more troubling when you consider the Chinese governments dismal history of transparency and openness–these numbers are probably understated.

China continues to develop economically, however unprecedented economic growth has led to only modest standard of living improvements. China has yet to become truly “modernized”. Continued reliance on cheap labor and lax environmental standards, coupled with restrictions on human rights and questionable government transparency will cause China to be highly scrutinized in the international community, and will prevent it from fulfilling its true potential as a world power.

India, as a democracy, is much more transparent and accepting of western values than China. However, in search of economic growth India, like China, has foregone environmentally sustainable development. This is especially relevant as many global climate initiatives have stalled in recent years, with developing countries and the developed world remaining in stalemate over who should pay for the majority of global “cleanup” projects. It is true that the developed world has been the leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the past, but if going forward the developing world (or Asia at least) is the main contributor to these emissions, then it must pay its fair share too.

Experts believe it is booming automobile demand that is the catalyst behind this disturbing trend. While this is indisputable, I would also have to imagine large-scale coal production is a leading contributor to air pollution related premature deaths. Health-related accountability of emissions by producers, alongside a global carbon tax, could stimulate in the global transition from “dirty” to “clean” energy.