The environmental Kuznets Curve is alive and well

The winter air in Tehran is often foul but for six days last week it was hardly breathable. A dense and poisonous chemical smog made up of traffic and factory fumes, mixed with construction dust, burning vegetation and waste has shrouded buildings, choked pedestrians, forced schools and universities to close, and filled the hospitals.

Anyone who could flee the Iranian mega-city of 15 million people has done so, but, say the authorities, in the past two weeks more than 400 people have died as a direct result of the pollution, known as the Asian “brown cloud”.

Tehran is far from alone. A combination of atmospheric conditions, geography and the start of the winter heating season regularly traps urban air pollution from October to February across a great swath of Asia. But this year has seen some of the worst smog episodes in nearly 20 years despite cities trying to reduce traffic and factory emissions.

Poor places are clean because no one has any shit (other than literal shit) to make the place dirty. Places getting rich are filthy. For people spend that getting richer on basics like food, clothing etc. Then rich places get clean as people spend some of that new richness on having a clean place not enveloped in shit.

All well known, it’s the environmental Kuznets Curve.

The only interesting question is when do people think they’re rich enough to start cleaning all that shit up? One estimate I’ve seen is about $8,000 GDP per capita. It’s only one estimate – but it means that China will be cleaner going into the future, Iran, Indonesia still have some way to go.

18 thoughts on “The environmental Kuznets Curve is alive and well”

  1. So Much For Subtlety

    Tehran also has crap geography. The government has been concentrating the population in one big city for some time.

    I think the interesting part will be their solution. Iranian clerics are a lot smarter and sophisticated than people give them credit for. By Middle Eastern standards, certainly, but also by non-Sh!thole standards. They came to power with the simplistic idea that a simple application of a limited set of ideas from some crazed murderous goat herders could solve all their problems. But reality has turned out to be more complex. In retrospect the Shah didn’t do a half bad job – not that the goat herders will ever admit it. So they will have to find some basis for their decisions. That ought to be an interesting exercise in theology.

  2. Then you get very rich countries invaded by scaremongering greens who want to vote out nuclear power and start polluting again, whilst making everyone poorer again.

    Greens think there are too many people on the planet: how can you believe they have your best interests at heart?

  3. Nothing like London in early 1950s then. Smaller population, thousands of deaths in the great smog. We sorted such things out better by moving some stuff, changing stuff – basically having relatively cleaner air in the city.

  4. ‘in the past two weeks more than 400 people have died as a direct result of the pollution’

    Bullshit. Such claims are without medical attribution. Even deaths ‘from’ the Great Smog are anecdotal.

  5. Greens think there are too many people on the planet: how can you believe they have your best interests at heart?

    That.

  6. Not just a wealth thing.
    If you’re surrounded by mountains, in still air with a temperature inversion even rich places like Grenoble can be pretty poisonous.

  7. Bloke in North Dorset

    Is there something similar for social changes? I was thinking about that city in China, Yulin, that has a dog eating festival which has started to attract criticism from wealthier cities.

  8. Bloke in Costa Rica

    When I got to CR in 1999 central San José was awful during the day from exhaust fumes. Now the country is about twice as rich, they have pretty stringent emission controls when you get your yearly technical inspection and it’s vastly better. Anecdotal, of course, but supportive of the thesis.

  9. Funnily enough just watched the episode of Netflix series the Crown which covered the great smog in 50’s London, one line in it had Churchill saying that with all the hardships after winning the war he wasn’t about to let people freeze to death on top of everything else despite knowing of the potential risks of burning coal, in the narrative they placed the blame partly on inner city power generation as opposed to moving it further away.

  10. BiF @ 2:06
    “Not just a wealth thing.
    If you’re surrounded by mountains, in still air with a temperature inversion even rich places like Grenoble can be pretty poisonous.”

    Krakow suffers similarly due to geography (and excessive fuel costs – thanks, EU! – forcing poor folk to burn household rubbish in solid-fuel stoves), although surrounded by hills rather than mountains. The local SJWs kvetch about it in their inimitably tiresome fashion, and some even ostentatiously sport paper facemasks.

    That said, the air can be pretty foul outdoors, and the local authority has now instigated a plan to replace all solid fuel stoves (burning wood or brown coal isn’t much better) in apartment buildings in the old city centre, which is the worst by far.

  11. Bloke in Costa Rica

    Wasn’t there some sort of poisoned triangle in Poland/Czechia/wherever where the fumes from burning lignite made it basically uninhabitable? Ah, the joys of environmental protection under communism.

  12. BniC – the people had been burning coal for many years. The weather condition at that time was very unusual for its strength and longevity – smog was a known issue, this level of smog was not.
    The weather conditions that caused it still happen thousands of times a year. Over sea you would not notice, over many land areas it won’t make much difference. Big cities burning fossil fuel – that’s where such things are noticeable.

  13. “the local authority has now instigated a plan to replace all solid fuel stoves (burning wood or brown coal isn’t much better) in apartment buildings in the old city centre, which is the worst by far.”

    I’m scratching my head about how you can burn anything for fuel in an apartment.

  14. So Much For Subtlety

    Rob – “I’m scratching my head about how you can burn anything for fuel in an apartment.”

    Never lived in a former Communist country? One of the reasons that Beijing’s air is so bad is that the locals continue to burn coal to heat their apartments. Even though they usually lack chimneys or fireplaces.

  15. The old tenement buildings in Krakow often have magnificent floor-to-ceiling “boilers” clad in glazed ceramic tiles that in many cases traverse the wall separating kitchen from bedroom/living room (and ceiling height is frequently 12′ for 1st and 2nd floor apartments). They take a day or so to reach temperature, but are a remarkably effective source of gentle heat, as well as providing hot water. As with the traditional kitchen range much-beloved by middle-class brits (who may or may not have holiday homes in photogenic parts of Italy), solid fuel is these days giving way to gas. And yes, the buildings have chimneys, making it a little easier for concerned citizens to spot toxic emissions, albeit with limited precision.

    Compared to many former iron-curtain cities, Krakow emerged from WWII relatively unscathed, and the historic parts were cared for reasonably well even by the Communists. It may have arguably the worst air quality in Europe, but this is by first-world standards.

  16. Oh, and about the London smogs of the 1950s. This from my mother who was there: if you stretched out your arm, you couldn’t see your hand; vehicles moved at a slow walking pace; everyone coughed. After the 1956 Clean Air Act was introduced, in built-up areas you could only burn coke (“smokeless fuel”), not coal, for heat. Compliance was made easier by there being no choice of fuel for sale officially (plus a smokey chimney was a dead giveaway). Problem solved almost instantly.

    What I don’t know is how much more expensive coke was/is over coal, and how much that affected poor folk; wikipedia’s entry is unsurprisingly more concerned with how this legislation gave rise to the modern environmental movement.

  17. Bloke in North Dorset

    Josh,

    Purely anecdotal.

    In the mid ’60s my best mates’ dad ran a coal delivery business from home and we used to play around in the yards. As we lived out in the country on the edge of the industrial West Riding we didn’t have many areas that were smoke free.

    From memory of most what was in the yards was coal rather than coke, so I’m guessing it was more expensive, but couldn’t say by how much.

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