Preventing pollution: lessons from the past

In the 1950s, air pollution in the UK led to the deaths of thousands. Britain’s long and difficult road to environmental protection is an important example for China, says Peter Thorsheim.

Massive industrial production, heavy dependency on coal, and cities shrouded in thick clouds of smoke—these things characterise not only contemporary China, but also Britain during much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Because of this similar history, the lengthy British struggle against air pollution from coal has special relevance for China.

For years, people in Britain disagreed about the effects of their country’s unchecked consumption of vast quantities of coal; in a similar way to people in China today. Many welcomed coal smoke as a sign of economic prosperity and employment, while others argued that smoke imposed heavy economic costs.

Smoke, according to the latter view, represented waste, not wealth. One of the leading proponents of this position was Dr. Neil Arnott, physician extraordinary to Queen Victoria. In 1855 he declared that “in London alone, on account of its smoke-loaded atmosphere, the cost of washing the clothes of the inhabitants is greater by two millions and a half sterling a-year … than for the same number of families residing in the country.”

Although Arnott’s estimate covered only laundry expenses, others attempted a more comprehensive accounting of the economic costs of air pollution. The scientist Rollo Russell (uncle to the philosopher Bertrand Russell) identified 24 types of damage caused by coal smoke, including degradation of painted surfaces, destruction of metal and stonework, damage to vegetation, and human illness. Using many of the same categories several decades later, a British government committee in the 1950s calculated that air pollution was costing 250 million pounds each year. Although experts at that time emphasised that the detrimental effects of coal combustion were more than merely a local problem, hardly anyone saw them as global in scope.

One of the largest costs of smoke, according to many commentators, was the wasteful use of coal that led to its creation. Optimists hoped that as coal users realised that smoke prevention would save them money, the air would become clear. But while more efficient use of coal would indeed cut fuel costs and reduce smoke emissions, the technologies needed to do so were expensive to purchase and operate. Even if manufacturers could be convinced that buying more efficient (and less polluting) equipment would save money in the long run, many of them lacked the capital or long-range commitment necessary to make this investment.

When it became evident that polluters would not take the initiative to reduce smoke, the government began to intervene. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the British Parliament passed a series of laws that required local authorities to take action against industries that emitted large quantities of smoke.

The impact of this legislation was limited by many of the same factors that continue to hinder effective environmental regulation around the world, including low fines, legal loopholes, and the fact that many of the local officials responsible for enforcing anti-smoke laws were themselves the owners of polluting factories. Even when regulators had no personal financial stake in skirting the law, they often feared that strict enforcement would cause industries to relocate, with a consequent loss of jobs and tax revenue.

So things might have remained, had not disaster struck. In December 1952 an unusual combination of weather conditions visited London, which prevented the combustion products from its millions of fireplaces from rising into the atmosphere or blowing away. Visibility shrank to virtually zero, hospitals overflowed with people struggling for breath, and several thousand people died.

As the government was considering how to reduce air pollution after the smog disaster, it faced heavy pressure from coal, manufacturing, and electricity interests. Just as has happened more recently in China and the US, advocates for these industries argued that pollution-control devices and alternative sources of energy were too expensive to be adopted.

After much negotiation, Parliament eventually passed the Clean Air Act of 1956. In addition to expanding government research into pollution prevention, this law placed new restrictions on industrial smoke. It also began to control smoke from household heating and cooking—responsible for much of Britain’s air pollution. To help defray the costs of purchasing less polluting appliances, both national and local units of government provided financial assistance.

Although this legislation did much to reduce the production of visible smoke, it did nothing to regulate invisible pollutants like sulphur dioxide and mercury—to say nothing of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Rather than prohibiting the environmental release of these substances, regulators encouraged industry to build extremely tall smokestacks that would propel them high into the air, where they would presumably be diluted to “harmless” levels.

Unfortunately, raising the height of a smokestack simply transfers pollution from one place to another. Sulphur dioxide produces acid rain hundreds of kilometres downwind from the factories and power plants where it originates, fine particles can drift even further, and carbon dioxide rapidly diffuses into the world’s atmosphere, which may contain twice as much CO2 by the end of this century as it did when Britain began to industrialize.

China now consumes over two thousand million tonnes of coal each year, and coal is certain to remain China’s main source of energy for decades to come. Technology exists that can drastically reduce the amount of particulate pollution and sulphur dioxide that enters the air when coal is burned. The greatest beneficiaries of such a change will be the Chinese people, who are currently paying a high price in terms of coal-related damage to health, property, and the environment. But cleaner air in China will also benefit many who live far from China. Researchers recently found, for example, that smoke particles from China are reaching the United States.

In addition to pollution-control devices, greater energy efficiency is just as important. State-of-the-art electricity generating plants burn less coal and release less particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, and carbon dioxide than traditional power stations. Energy conservation and more efficient appliances bring similar benefits—and cost less than new generating capacity. If China invests in these technologies, both it and the rest of the world will reap enormous benefits.

It is now clear that dilution is not the answer—the best way to deal with pollution is to prevent its creation in the first place. All of us on this planet are neighbours; and we have only one atmosphere to share among us. Just as people in earlier generations cooperated at the local and national levels to reduce pollution, we must work together globally to ensure healthy air now and in the future.

Peter Thorsheim is an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and is the author of Inventing Pollution: Coal, Smoke, and Culture in Britain since 1800.

Homepage photo by Robert Croma