Urban Development and Air Pollution

Urban Development and Air Pollution

Recently, NASA released a map of the world depicting the impact of global air pollution. The map, which looks at premature deaths caused by pollution, paints a somewhat bleak picture with noticeably higher premature deaths in fast growing economies. These traditional “growing economies” seem to suffer the worst in terms of pollution, and the obvious question is asked: Is there a trade off between high economic development and pollution – or further social welfare? The map attributes highest pollution related deaths to India, coastal China, and to a lesser extent Europe and mid-African countries.

With countries focusing on growth it is often easy to push aside environmental policy and the subsequent negative externalities caused by pollution. It’s obvious that in order to grow, countries focus on output and the concerns of the environment often become a topic of discussion only after the public and other countries take notice and become vocal.

In the past decades, development in China has been exponential with little signs of stopping. Although hailed as the new emerging economic superpower, it’s clear that the costs to the environment are not necessarily factored in to the decision making process. If the goal is sustainable long term development, are the costs associated with pollution worth the associated economic growth? If the underlying principle of economic growth is of increasing the overall well being of the citizens, then the payoff in terms of smog, contaminated soil and rivers, and other harmful pollutants may not be worth it. What is being developed are generation’s worth of lower human capital caused by sickness and death. China is home to one-third of global deaths by lung cancer, with concentrations in heavily polluted Beijing.

With the focus on economic development, often the external costs associated to forgoing sound environmental policy are forgotten. Add in health care expenditures, opportunity cost for the sick and deceased from pollution, and other direct expenses that must be made towards combating and monitoring pollution (China will now spend $277 billion over five years towards air pollution), and the relative economic growth seems less and less impressive.

What thus can be learned for countries on the verge of developing in Africa? The point is to manage the goal of development with the externalities involved – be it pollution, social welfare, or whatever. The benefits to rapid development may provide short term returns, but at the cost of doing irreversible harm to the environment that future generations must bear, the net impact may not be as great as thought. Sound research based development taking into account all external costs and benefits, is the key to sustainable growth for all generations to come.


Written by Jacob Macdonald, Research Master student at Nova SBE and member of NOVAFRICA Student Group