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  • Blue Skies over Beijing: Economic Growth and the Environment in China by Matthew E. Kahn and Siqi Zheng
  • Herman F. Huang (bio)
Matthew E. Kahn and Siqi Zheng. Blue Skies over Beijing: Economic Growth and the Environment in China. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. ix, 271 pp. Hardcover $32.95, isbn 978-0-691-16936-1.

Since the 1980s, energy consumption in China has soared as a result of rapid economic growth and urbanization. Most of this energy is supplied by fossil fuels, primarily coal (66 percent in 2012) and oil (20 percent).1 The combustion of fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas), nitrogen oxides, particulates, and other pollutants into the atmosphere. For the year 2012, the World Health Organization attributed nearly 1,033,000 deaths in China to ambient air pollution, compared to about 38,000 deaths in the United States.2 Another report estimated the cost of air pollution to be 6.5 percent of China's gross domestic product (GDP) between 2000 and 2010.3 Many Chinese citizens get information about air quality through official sources4 and through social media.

In Blue Skies over Beijing: Economic Growth and the Environment in China, Matthew E. Kahn and Siqi Zheng examine how China's urban growth has impacted the environment and how air quality impacts the decisions made by citizens, firms, and government. Kahn is a professor of economics and spatial statistics at the University of Southern California. Zheng is affiliated with Tsinghua University, where she is a professor and director of the Hang Lung Center for Real Estate at Tsinghua University and the deputy head of the Department of Construction Management. The authors' sources include interviews of numerous urban residents, their own previous research, and the personal experiences of coauthor Zheng, who lives in Beijing with her family.

This book consists of 10 chapters, two brief appendices, an extensive end notes section, and the index. Chapter 1 introduces readers to China's environmental challenges and provides an overview of the book. Readers learn about some of the advantages and disadvantages of life in Beijing from Zheng and two informants. The research questions are presented on pages 7 and 8:

  • • For China's hundreds of millions of urbanites, how does pollution affect their daily quality of life?

  • • How do their day-to-day choices in aggregate impact local and global environmental challenges?

  • • Why is their demand for a cleaner environment likely to increase over time?

  • • How will government policies influence urban environmental quality dynamics?

The authors note that the Chinese government has eased restrictions on the internal passport system (hukou), allowing citizens more freedom in choosing where to live. They also introduce the environmental Kuznets curve, which "posits that as poor cities grow wealthier, such economic growth causes [End Page 198] environmental degradation, but that as middle-income cities grow wealthier, such economic growth contributes to economic improvements" (pp. 15–16). More details are given in chapter 10 and Appendix 1.

The next four chapters comprise "Part I: A Geographic Overview of Urban Pollution in China." Chapter 2 traces the rise of manufacturing in China and its impacts on the environment. There is an emerging trend of manufacturing firms moving away from coastal cities because of high land costs and wages. Hundreds of firms have received financial compensation from Beijing's city government to move out of the city center, to reduce pollution.

Rural-to-urban migration and city-to-city migration are discussed in chapter 3. According to the authors, China had 193 cities in 1978 and now has 657 cities. However, they do not say what constitutes a city in China. For example, is there a minimum population threshold? Is a city in China analogous to an urbanized area or a Metropolitan Statistical Area in the United States? Four Chinese cities–Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Shenzhen–are considered to be first-tier cities. Provincial capitals (except Lhasa) and several large coastal cities are second-tier, and all other cities are third-tier.

Because my training is in urban planning, I was especially interested in chapter 4, which is about the causes and effects of suburbanization in China. Figure 4.1 shows the...


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