Originally published on April 13th, 2015 at generalcirculation.blogspot.com
Of all the breaths that I've taken in my life, my favorites are those first gulps of fresh air when I step out of the airport at a destination. It's my first chance to breathe in the character of a new location or to inhale a favorite harbor's je ne sais quoi.
Even now, when I return to my hometown, that first taste of Texas air is like an elixir--warm, slightly humid, and profoundly comforting. In my family's home country of Trinidad and Tobago, stepping out of the Port of Spain airport brings with it a waft of diesel exhaust, sweat, and maybe a little hint of curry from the doubles stand--spicy, alive, and familiar.
I take those waves of sensory nostalgia for granted. This week, though, I came across this article in the San Francisco Chronicle that's been making the rounds on Facebook and that gave me a much overdue admonition on the importance of air.
The article highlights a recent piece of work from a Chinese artist, Liang Kegang, that consists of a sealed mason jar of French Alpine air, sold to the highest bidder for $860 in protest of China's poor air quality. The article also details a few somewhat less symbolic endeavors deriving from China's recent battles with air pollution, including one clearer-aired province's plan to sell canned air for visitors to take home with them and a Chinese entrepreneur who is already doing so.
The issue, though covered in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek way, is a bit disturbing to me. It seems fundamentally unsettling for something like clean air to be commodified (which, perhaps, was Liang's intended point). Is it problematic for clean air to be something that can be bought and sold, something to which some have access and others don't?
I suppose in some ways we already allow clean air to be bought and sold. Some people can afford to move out of areas with urban smog, while others can't. On the other hand, at least in the U.S., universal access to clean water is something that has been made a priority. Municipal tap water is safe to drink and you can get it for free at a restaurant or from a public water fountain. Why is the same universal access not applied to clean air?
All of this contemplation happens to overlap with some in-depth reading I've been doing of a recent paper that does a neat analysis of the amount of emissions of different air pollutants in China that come from exports to other countries.
The most striking result of the paper for me is summed up pretty neatly in the below figure.
The percent change in the surface concentration of the air pollutant, black carbon, due to goods being manufactured in China and exported to the U.S. from Lin et al. (2014).
The figure shows the change in one type of air pollutant, black carbon (which also happens to be the air pollutant that my research is focused on), due to goods being manufactured in China and exported to the U.S. rather than being manufactured in the U.S.
There are a few interesting things going on in the figure. You can see that the U.S. has had less air pollution because of this trade, but that China has had more--in fact, way more than the U.S. has had less. This has to do with the "emissions intensity" of China's manufacturing--basically, much more pollution is emitted when one widget is produced in China than when that same widget is produced in the U.S. (because of difference in manufacturing practices, energy sources, etc.).
The amount of pollution in China due to exports to the U.S. is not a small amount, especially when you add in all the other types of pollutants besides black carbon. All together, more than 20% of all export-related pollution (which makes up 15-40% of all air pollution in China, depending on the type of pollutant) is due to China-to-U.S. exports.
This result takes on extra meaning in the context of that $860 jar of air. If a jam jar of fresh air costs $860, how much do we owe China? How much more would we have to pay for things imported from China if the cost of clean air were included in the price of the goods?
Even more thought-provoking to me are the studies looking at mortality due to air pollution. One such study from some Princeton authors shows that more than 700,000 deaths in East Asia in the year 2000 could be attributed to particulate air pollution. It would be fairly easy to use the same formulas to attribute some portion of those deaths to air pollution that comes from exports.
The debate over who is truly responsible for such deaths is ongoing. Is it China for not implementing better pollution reduction measures? Or is it the importing country for driving the need for production in the first place? But it regardless raises some important questions about the global commons that is our atmosphere.
We have an odd relationship with the air we breathe. We so frequently are completely oblivious to it, but every now and then, like when stepping out of those airport sliding doors, it reminds us of its centrality in our lives.