In recent months, Japan and China have blustered over disputed islands that don’t appear to have any real economic or territorial benefits for either nation. Jets have scrambled and radars locked on opposing vessels, all signs of increasing tension. But the two Asian powerhouses have now begun to argue over a shared threat that actually does have impacts on the health and future of their respective populations—air pollution.
Japanese media and environmental authorities have accused China of being the source of increasing levels of soot in the air (particulates 2.5 microns or smaller, which can lodge deep in the lungs and bloodstream, called PM 2.5). That PM 2.5 in the air comes largely from diesel exhaust, causing asthma and other respiratory diseases. It is also linked to heart disease and, therefore, more than 6 million premature deaths every year, according to the World Health Organization. China shot back that the cause is Japan’s switch from nuclear power to new dependence on burning coal and trash for energy.
So will air pollution, which doesn’t respect lines on a map, ultimately cause more diplomatic skirmishes—or worse? In fact, the best potential resolution of such conflicts is a series of technologies and investments that can enrich nations and companies, while dramatically improving public health.
For starters, more than a decade ago, California mandated the use of ultra-low sulfur diesel, which burns many times cleaner than traditional fuel. Smog levels have plummeted, especially around ports and other major sources of vehicle exhaust, cutting health problems and health care costs while creating new sources of revenue for fuel blenders and engine manufacturers. Growth around the ports had been severely curtailed because of air pollution limits, but now projects are back on track to boost imports and exports, not to mention more local jobs. Last week, China took a page out of the California playbook and mandated the use of these cleaner fuels by 2017. Their industries and drivers will likely see similar benefits to the economy and the environment as a result.
Japan has long focused on the vehicles themselves as both a means to curtail smog and a source of economic growth. Last month, Nissan announced a partnership with Ford and Daimler to jointly develop hydrogen-powered electric cars, a technology that is more practical for average consumers than battery-powered cars and trucks. Nissan is thinking of the global market of course, especially places like California where hydrogen fueling stations are already in place, but it will join Honda and Toyota as car makers that have impressive hydrogen-electric drive trains and vehicles in use in Japan already.
And both nations are focused on expanding energy efficiency and renewable energy generation, two strategies that will dramatically lower air pollution over time. Japan has announced investment targets of up to half a trillion dollars over the next two decades for solar and wind, along with twice that amount committed to energy-efficiency measures. China’s last five year plan aimed at making the country 20% more energy efficient, a goal that was largely achieved by 2012, and the current five year plan aims for another 20% improvement. 2012 also marked the year that China led the world in deployment of wind power, surpassing the U.S. for the first time. Make no mistake—both countries are becoming more competitive and wealthy as a result of these moves.
The world might learn some valuable lessons about the need to address shared challenges like air pollution by watching how Japan and China resolve their current differences. But we can all profit by paying even more attention to how they invest in a cleaner, healthier future.