12/16/2013 10:41 am ET Updated Feb 15, 2014

China Can Clean Its Air

On December 14, 2013, China became the first nation in 37 years to make a soft landing of a spacecraft on the moon. Its unmanned Jade Rabbit lunar rover is now very busy exploring the surface of the moon. At the very same time this great scientific achievement was taking place, events nearer to the ground were less inspiring. Last week, eastern China sat under a massive gray cloud of air pollution that was among the most widespread smog incidents the planet has ever seen. While I am not an expert on China's economy, politics, culture or history, it is not difficult to draw a link between these two events. They represent the best and worst impacts of the technological age we live in. They also illustrate the enormous and rapid growth of the Chinese economy.

Also last week, I had the honor of teaching sustainability management to a group of Hong Kong's civil servants, so China is very much on my mind. For several days the air over Hong Kong was gray, but held little moisture. Like Pittsburgh before the days of the U.S. Clean Air Act, you could see the air and feel its grime. The week before, Austin Ramzy of the New York Times reported that: "Eastern China is suffering from some of the most severe air pollution in recent memory, forcing schools to cancel classes in the city of Nanjing and shrouding Shanghai's famous skyline in an acrid haze." The government officials I was working with expressed the same concern about environmental degradation that I have been seeing in the admission essays of Chinese students applying to Columbia University's sustainability graduate programs. Air pollution has reached a point of crisis. There are no "air pollution deniers." While polluted water can be filtered before use, polluted air is impossible to avoid. It is also an equal opportunity toxic; rich people cannot build gated communities to keep out polluted air. Breathing is not a behavior humans can defer for very long.

There is little question that air quality is on the political agenda in China. In fact, last week Gina McCarthy devoted her first overseas trip as EPA Administrator to China, engaging in discussions of cooperation on this critical issue. The EPA is eager to share air pollution control techniques and technology with China, and the Obama Administration sees cooperation on pollution control as a way to help build positive relations between the U.S. and China.

Cooperation on space travel seems more problematic. According to the New York Times reporter Chris Buckley:

Despite its benign name, China's Jade Rabbit rover could kindle anxieties among some American politicians and policy makers that the United States risks losing its pre-eminence in space in coming decades. China's opaque space bureaucracy is overseen by the military, and that has magnified wariness. Legislation passed by Congress in 2011 bars NASA from bilateral contacts with China, although multilateral contacts are not proscribed.

China's rapid economic and technological developments are 21st-century facts of life. Both competition and cooperation with the U.S. are inevitable. Reactionary forces in both countries will stoke nationalistic paranoia, and to the extent that these reactionaries achieve power, they may be responsible for self-fulfilling prophecies. Ironically, the counterweight to destructive extreme nationalism is likely to be economic and cultural globalism. The Internet and global travel demystify and homogenize, or at least globalize, elements of national culture. You can buy bagels in Hong Kong, sushi in Indiana, and watch MTV and CNN anywhere. Apple makes computers in China and the production networks of global corporations cross borders as easily as some of us cross streets. National sovereignty shows no signs of fading away, but a form of global citizenship seems to be growing alongside it.

This global citizenship makes us want to help China solve its air pollution problems. The U.S. decoupled the growth of its economy from the growth of air pollution in the 1970s. We also began to learn how to manage toxic waste in the 1980s and 1990s. We learned that the costs of pollution prevention and control were far less than the cost of environmental clean up and remediation. It took us many decades to develop our economy and many more decades to learn the tough lesson that a toxic environment was an unacceptable cost of economic development. China is developing much faster than we did and will also need to learn how to control their pollution faster than we did. When we dumped toxics into rivers, you could argue that we did not know any better. While I'm not sure I buy that argument, it is clearly not one that China can use today.

Once toxics and pollutants escape containment, their cleanup is expensive. General Electric is spending billions of dollars to dredge PCBs from the Hudson River. BP spent billions to clean up the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. military, private sector and civilian government will spend about a trillion dollars to clean up the toxics we dumped from the 1920s to the 1980s. Air, water and solid waste management are huge, multi-billion dollar industries throughout the world. These costs cannot be avoided, and the longer they are put off the more expensive they become. The costs of pollution control cannot be avoided because humans are living beings and we all need poison-free food, water and air in order to live.

The political pressure for economic development in rapidly developing nations is far greater than the pressure for economic development that Europe and the U.S. experienced in the 20th century. There was no Internet or satellite communications to transmit images of wealth in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. Today, people around the world see the wealth and lifestyle created by modern technology, find it as seductive as we do, and want it. Governments, like the one in China, are under intense pressure to deliver that wealth as soon as possible. The political pressure for economic growth and the temptation of rapid and massive profits are the causes of unregulated development and massive pollution.

The challenge of global sustainability has political, regulatory, ethical, managerial, economic and technological dimensions. There are no simple black and white answers to the dilemmas we are confronted with. There is no way to shut off the economic machine we have built and the transition to a sustainable, renewable economy will take decades. It does little good to pass judgment on nations that approach economic development differently than we might like. Each nation, community and company faces its own unique set of circumstances.

While all of us differ, many more traits bind humanity together. The Chinese scientists cried tears of joy when their space vessel landed on the moon. So too did NASA scientists decades ago when Neil Armstrong took "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

Our common humanity requires us to detoxify our economy and base that economy on renewable energy and materials. The way we get from here to there will vary, but the need to transform the global economy is clear. Since China has the technological capacity to get to the moon, it can deploy that same technological capacity to clean its air. I'm betting it will do that sooner rather than later.