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Pollution by the Numbers

Our only hope of overcoming the environmental challenges we face is to use every tool we can. That means collecting detailed data on issues like air quality, and using what we learn to design the right rules and incentives.

MEXICO CITY – 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 recognize 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.

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