“Those Who Fail To Learn From History Are Doomed To Repeat It”

This quote, attributed to George Santayana, can be applicable to a wide range of human experiences and endeavors.  While it is impossible to list all of them, recent press coverage of China’s air pollution problems represents an interesting example.

China’s pollution crisis has been attributed to decades of unrestrained industrialization.  While improving the economic outlook of hundreds of millions of Chinese, the downside has been significant environmental damage.  China’s government has begun to take this matter seriously and has embarked on a three-year “war on pollution”, with a primary focus on air quality in Beijing and the more than 100 million people that live in the greater metropolitan area.

Household coal burning has been identified as particularly dirty in that it often happens without the kind of emission controls required in power plant and industrial applications.  Government efforts to substitute electric heating, particularly in rural areas, have been limited by the high cost of electricity in a country with a chronic shortage of electric generating capacity.  The fact that China’s electric power industry is highly dependent on coal, suggests that success in moving households to electricity may have limited environmental benefits.

London’s “great smog” of 1952 was a severe air pollution event that affected England’s capital in December 1952.  The severity of the event was exacerbated by a combination of weather, increased use of coal for household heating during unusually cold weather and the poor quality of coal available for domestic use.  The U.K. has suffered from poor air quality since the 1200’s, which worsened in the 1600’s, but the “great smog” is considered to have been the worst air-pollution event in the history of the country.

The environmental problems relating to household wood and coal burning have been well known for decades.  Is it necessary to wait until you can’t see or breathe, to start to do something?

All comments and suggestions are welcome.

Walter J. Kirchberger, CFA®