Matthew Kahn proudly calls himself a “free market environmentalist.” During his recent talk on “China’s Future Green Cities” at Lewis Hall, he explained the moniker as part of the Urban Growth Seminar Series hosted by the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy and the USC Center for Sustainable Cities.
“Whenever I have the chance to speak, I always try to be interesting and provocative,” said Kahn, professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, the Department of Economics, the Department of Public Policy, the Anderson School of Management and the UCLA School of Law. He also is a research associate at The National Bureau of Economic Research.
Kahn began his talk with the idea that the world’s population is urbanizing. China is following this global trend, with half of its denizens now living in cities.
This has led to some widely recognized sustainability challenges. According to the World Bank, China has some of the planet’s most polluted cities, Kahn noted. Only 1 percent of China’s urbanites live in cities that satisfy the European Union’s air quality standards, and people in Beijing keep their children inside on highly polluted days.
While newspapers often publish articles predicting further environmental doom for the rapidly developing nation, as well as the rest of the world, Kahn is more optimistic.
“There are ways to harness capitalism to achieve environmental progress during a time of growth,” he said.
Kahn cited the decrease in California air pollution between 1980 and 2001 as an example of how a place can get greener during a time of growth – in both population and per capita income. Thanks to new air pollution regulations and the widespread introduction of the catalytic converter, emissions per mile of driving fell 99 percent.
Along similar lines, Chinese cities that have more foreign direct investment find a negative correlation with ambient pollution.
“I meet economists who think that there are laws of physics that pollution just scales linearly with economic activity,” Kahn said. “That’s false.”
Much of Kahn’s optimism springs from the fact that China owes part of its rapid economic growth to a more educated population. According to Kahn, educated people will demand a decent quality of life in the form of greener cities. They will have fewer children. Most importantly, they will create innovations in the form of cleaner, greener technology.
After his presentation, Hilda Blanco, USC Price research professor and interim director of the university’s Center for Sustainable Cities, responded with her own expert opinion on the topic.
“My optimism is a little bit more guarded because China faces greater challenges than the United States,” she said, pointing out that China, which has a more compressed time frame to mitigate its pollution, continues to industrialize at breakneck speed.
During the Q&A session, several professors and students in the audience raised additional concerns about China’s unique challenges and its implications for the planet.
USC Price professor Tridib Banerjee made the point that even if educated Chinese citizens demand green cities, the government might not pay them any heed. Kahn acknowledged the problem and noted that microblogs have the potential to disseminate information and make the Chinese government more accountable.
Travis Longcore, research associate professor of spatial sciences at USC, brought a scientist’s perspective to the discussion.
“Most ecologists and physical scientists would disagree with your big picture,” he said, explaining that Kahn’s vision of a green China focused solely on human quality of life – local air pollution and carbon emissions – while neglecting bigger-picture sustainability issues, such as biodiversity and ecosystem services.
“I have no doubt that humans will work very hard and have very high incentives to provide high quality of life for themselves and that will go up as they get richer, but that does not in fact solve the underlying problem that we are facing as a society,” Longcore said. “We already know from history that financial incentives about rarity are insufficient to stop extinction and ecosystems destruction.”
Kahn responded by putting the onus on ecologists to come up with indicators of the critical environmental threshold that cannot be crossed without irrevocably destroying the planet.
“It would be horrible if the ecologists knew where was the key threshold and if the naïve capitalists and economists helped them run right past that point of no return,” Kahn said. “Even I would find that to be terrible.”