By Kaushik Basu
The Great Chinese Famine, which peaked in 1960, was the world’s largest on record. But the effects of that famine – including its toll of more than 30 million deaths – were not quantified until long after the fact. That was partly because government officials were afraid to bring whatever information they had to the attention of Mao Zedong, whose Great Leap Forward policy had played a role in causing the famine. But it was also because so few people actually understood the scale of the problem, owing to a lack of data. Is air pollution today’s great famine?
In recent decades, data collection has improved dramatically in many areas. The economy, for example, is tracked and monitored to an unprecedented extent, allowing policymakers and the public alike to recognise very quickly when economic growth is slowing down, job creation is below potential, or demand is flagging. Even if that information does not enable economists to predict future slowdowns with much accuracy, it does facilitate timely responses. This is one reason why there are fewer major economic crises nowadays, and why world GDP, despite a recent slowdown, is growing much faster than it did a century ago.
Yet, when it comes to pollution, and specifically air quality, not nearly enough attention has been paid to data collection and analysis, especially in emerging economies like India and China, where air-quality deterioration is obvious and severe. Though broad figures are being collected, there are not enough granular data to provide a clear picture of the specific factors affecting air quality.
This is not to say that data alone should determine policy. Economics is a social science, and aggregate outcomes often reflect the effects of idiosyncratic behaviour, attitudes, and events. The same goes for environmental policymaking: interventions can fail for reasons that have little to do with design.
That is what happened in India, when new cooking stoves were introduced in order to cut indoor pollution, a major cause of health problems among the country’s poor. The project should have worked: laboratory tests confirmed that the stoves produced less pollution. But a carefully controlled randomised intervention designed by Rema Hanna, Esther Duflo, and Michael Greenstone showed otherwise.
Initially smoke inhalation did decline. But that effect quickly disappeared, because households failed to maintain the stoves and used them irregularly, inappropriately, and increasingly infrequently. Four years later, there was no overall change in health outcomes or greenhouse-gas emissions.
Continue reading at The New Times…