Smog hasn’t been a huge topic in the US since the 1980s, when Los Angeles‘ famous mountains were perpetually obscured by a layer of brown haze. Thanks to the Clean Air Act, the U.S’s major metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and NYC have seen noticeable improvements in air quality, and smog isn’t a regular news headline. But while developed-world cities like London, LA and New York have cleaned up their air enormously, many other rapidly growing megacities in the developing world have inherited the air quality problem and their citizens are suffering because of it.
China’s numerous cities over one million population are seriously afflicted with air pollution. This past Tuesday, the central government declared a “red alert”, which means it is literally unsafe to walk the streets. The NYT also ran a story earlier this week about the Mengke Glacier, also in China, and how rising temperatures have begun to melt the ice pack. This once-monolithic mountain of ice and snow is literally evaporating before our eyes.
At the Paris climate change talks, China’s delegation isn’t fighting the talks with climate change denial. Instead, the Chinese readily acknowledge that carbon emissions are wreaking havoc upon the air and water quality in their country.
And what is causing all this? In a word, coal. Coal-powered plants continue to cause rampant pollution throughout China and many other developing nations.
In her book “Coal: A Human History,” author Barbara Freese writes, “Like a good genie, coal has granted many of our wishes, enriching most of us in developed nations beyond our wildest preindustrial dreams. But like a good genie, coal has an unpredictable and threatening side.” That threatening side has finally manifested itself by poisoning our air and polluting our waters.
Meanwhile, India has announced plans to open dozens of new coal mines over the next four years. Sources say India plans to increase its coal production from 600 million tons in 2012 to 1.5 billion tons by 2020.
The wealthy, developed nations are finally serious about weaning themselves off coal. Great progress has been made with a combination of solar, natural gas, wind and other forms of alternative energy. But let’s face it: we were coal addicts and abusers for decades before finally becoming enlightened to its dangers. And coal continues to tear communities and ecosystems asunder in the United States. Is it then fair to ask developing nations to skip those decades and leapfrog ahead to the cleaner but more costly energy solutions? The question is how do we get developing nations and their critically important developing economies to adopt cleaner energy?
One possible solution that makes sense to me is for the established, wealthy nations to shoulder a significant portion of the cost required to dramatically decrease the reliance of developing nations on coal-fired plants. We could also export and subsidize our plentiful natural gas from the United States and other natural gas-rich countries to developing nations that do not have their own easy-to-access natural gas supplies.
Thankfully, this time around the climate talks seem to be on a better course than previous attempts. Nobody has left the table in a huff, and the worst offenders seem sincere in wanting to do better. The question is, can we all figure this out soon enough to ensure a clean air and water future for our children and grandchildren?
For more on this critical question, please see Taking a Haircut for our Grandchildren
Jennifer Schwab is an expert in sustainability education specifically best practices in water management. She is also a noted columnist on Huffington Post whose “My Inner Green” articles on all things sustainable are widely followed by influentials in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East.