China’s Smog Can’t Compete With London’s Pea Soup

tags: China, smog, pollution



Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.

China’s already staggering pollution problems got worse this week as a shroud of smog engulfed northern industrial cities.

In Harbin, which has a population of 11 million, the PM2.5 index -- a measure of the concentration of microscopic particulate matter in the air -- broke 1,000. The World Health Organization considers any reading of more than 20 to be a cause for concern, and levels above 300 to be hazardous.

Like so much having to do with China’s economy, this environmental degradation seems unprecedented. It isn’t. The disasters in China today are simply the latest in a series of public-health catastrophes that have accompanied industrialization elsewhere. In fact, China’s contemporary pollution problems probably fall short of records first established in the U.K. and the U.S.

One of the defining features of industrial revolutions past and present is the shift to fossil fuels such as coal, particularly in urban centers. Much like contemporary China, England became an economic powerhouse by relying on cheap coal to power its factories as well as to heat and illuminate the cities that would become crucibles of industrial capitalism: Manchester, Birmingham and above all, London....



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