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Environmental Degradation in China: Tempest in a Teapot?

On 15 March 2007, Thomas Rawski, Professor of Economics and History at the University of Pittsburgh and Visiting Fellow in the Institute for Advanced Study, presented his research on the quality of China’s environment. Dr. Rawski’s presentation sought to provide historical perspective about the extent of pollution in China’s major cities. Noting that environmentalists are often quick to make alarmist claims about China’s ecological challenges, Dr. Rawski pointed out that by many measures, such as SO2 emissions, China’s urban air pollution is no worse than many Western countries when they were at similar levels of development. Moreover, the general trends point to declining pollution levels in most major Chinese cities. Acknowledging that data on rural areas is harder to come by, Dr. Rawski also indicated that there is preliminary evidence that air pollution is decreasing outside China’s cities as well. The implication is that China is less exceptional than typically portrayed and, as was the case for industrialized countries, one can expect China’s environment will improve as income increases and China adopts advanced technology. Dr. Rawski’s presentation sparked a lively discussion as audience members debated his portrayal of China’s environmental challenges as routine rather than exceptional as well as his argument that income expansion will solve China’s environmental issues. (Phillip Stalley)