Coming Clean on Pollution in Asia

Author Mark Clifford predicts change will happen because there's no other option

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By Ben Fray

Author Mark Clifford summed up Asia's economic growth story as this: “Get dirty, get rich, get clean.” The need for much of Asia to “clean up” its actions stands out today as an imperative few companies can ignore.

In his new book The Greening of Asia, Clifford highlights the need for businesses to take action to combat environmental degradation. At his March 23 book launch at AmCham China's Beijing office, he provided insight into the environmental challenges plaguing the region and provided a case study analysis of what several companies in Asia did to tackle pollution. He sat down with Business Now to answer a few more pressing questions.

Q: Why are environmental issues so critical at this point in time?

A: Well you live in Beijing, you know the environmental challenges that China is facing, and indeed much of Asia is facing, are unprecedented in global history. Whether you look at the very visible manifestation like the extraordinarily bad air quality that Beijing and large parts of China suffer under, or you look at some of the other aspects like the large amount of carbon that is contributing to global warming and climate change more generally, we can see that we face an environmental challenge, an environmental emergency, of historic proportions. What can’t go on forever usually doesn’t. People usually do the right thing once they’ve tried everything else – and we’ve sort of tried everything else.

We’ve had a period of extraordinary growth in Asia and China for the last few decades and one of the obvious corollaries of that is that we’ve trashed the environment. The health costs alone in China are getting to a point where we really cannot simply just ignore them anymore. You’ve probably seen the (2013 Health Effects Institute) study which suggests that nearly 1.2 million people every year are dying prematurely as a result of air pollution in China. I don’t think that any government can keep doing that sort of damage to its citizens without changing.

Q: With the way China is going, do you think conditions will improve soon?

A: If China breaks out of the business-as-usual mode and takes more realistic but aggressive steps to curb coal use, then I think you could see a dramatic change in 10 years or so, a significant improvement. I think that is going to require a change away from coal, but also is going to require a cleanup on the part of the entire fossil fuel industry. Gasoline standards are not where they should be, refining standards are not where they should be, and I think that Chinese people have made it clear to the leadership that they don’t want to see their children growing up in a situation where they might see their lifespans shorten rather than lengthen.

Obviously there also are other issues that have to do with cancer clusters, with water issues, with other resource issues, but I think just to sum it up, the very impressive growth we’ve seen in Asia has come at a cost. Now it’s time to start dealing with that cost and turn this challenge into an opportunity.

Q: Green energy is more expensive in China than coal-fired electricity generation, so why would a grid operator buy wind power as opposed to coal power?

A: When you look at in the more aggregate sense, the fossil fuel industry globally gets more than four times the subsidies as renewable power does – about $550 billion a year on fossil fuels compared with $120 billion for renewable power, according to the International Energy Agency. We’ve priced coal in a way so that we don’t actually pay the true cost of it, and those costs include peoples’ health, so low coal prices mean worse health, pollution and using up our carbon budget. So I don’t think that coal is cheaper, I think the governments have not priced it correctly.  

Ben Fray is an intern with AmCham China's Communications Department.