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Record Breaking Smog In China, India Underlines Climate Summit In Paris


As if to underline the importance of climate negotiations that are underway in Paris now, the capitals of the world's two most populous countries, India and China, are choked by heavy smog. Both of those countries are pushing hard for developing nations to be able to admit the carbon they need to develop and for the developed world to shoulder the main burden of reducing emissions. NPR's New Delhi correspondent Julie McCarthy and Beijing correspondent Anthony Kuhn are with me now to talk more about that. Hello to both of you.


ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hello to you, Kelly.

MCEVERS: And tell me what it's like where both of you are. I mean, how is the weather? We'll start with you, Julie, in New Delhi.

MCCARTHY: Well, it's gotten colder sooner, which means winter has descended. And usually in winter, you get a very grim, gray, almost shroud that descends over the city. You smell it. You taste it. And today, it looked like this gray soup. And you would think it wasn't a time for business as usual, but I think kind of a metaphor for what's going on here, Delhi actually staged a marathon on Sunday. So is this denial of what the public health situation is? Is this a lack of awareness? Is it both?

MCEVERS: Wow. What about for you, Anthony, in Beijing? What's the air quality like there?

KUHN: Well, Kelly, if you know what coal smoke smells like, that's what it smells like here. Some pollutants - basically these tiny little bits of grit or soot - have hit levels about 20 times higher than what the World Health Organization says are safe. It's the worst pollution so far this year, and the city's issued an orange alert, the second-highest level after red. And it's warning residents to stay indoors and ordering work suspended at factories and construction sites.

MCEVERS: Why is it so bad now?

KUHN: Well, for one thing, we're having the coldest November here in decades, and these coal-fired heating systems are on at full blast. But this has been going on for decades during which the government has basically said we're going to develop first and clean up later. And now the country is in very different stages of development. You've got cities like Beijing, where the economy is mostly made up of services, and then huge areas around it where they still mostly rely on heavy industry, which is heavily polluting. And most of North China now are shrouded in very heavy, acrid, smelly smog.

MCEVERS: And Julie, in New Delhi, is it just because it's winter that it's so bad?

MCCARTHY: Oh, no, no, not at all. This is the price of aspiration, Kelly. The West is selling a lifestyle that the Indians want. You know, they're building bigger homes. They're buying more gadgets that requires more electricity to run them. And not surprisingly, they're buying cars by the millions.

But you know, is the rich world going to say to them no, no, no, you can't have those eight million cars, Delhi? And it's - Delhi's poor air's really a function of the emission of cars and trucks, and this is also a city powered by coal-burning power plants. So you do get a noxious cocktail here.

MCEVERS: And so what are each of the countries doing about the air quality - doing to fix it?

MCCARTHY: Well, India has this ambitious solar program, but it's also tripling its coal production. So is one canceling out the other? Curiously, India pledges to neither cap nor cut its emissions, so it's a very tough line. The prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, said today, look; you know, India is far down on the food chain of development, much further down than China. And it draws Africa into its arguments and says, you know, it is morally wrong, morally - that's how it's framed - it's morally wrong to say we share the same burden when our development journey is just beginning while you rich countries have been polluting for a century-and-a-half. So you know, it's that squaring that circle between the developing and developed world that's the task for Paris.

MCEVERS: And what about China?

KUHN: China is contributing a lot to reducing global emissions, and they plan to do more with the carbon cap and trade system, increasing tree cover and more renewable energy sources. But as today's pollution makes clear, they're up against a huge problem, and it's going to take them many years to clean up the air.

We should note that Beijing's air is a little cleaner than last year, but most of that is due to a slowing economy and a shift from an industrial economy to a service one. At the end of the day, economic growth remains the government's priority, and they've had this long-standing security concern that other countries could use the climate change issue to constrain China's growth. And they're not about to let that happen.

MCEVERS: That Beijing correspondent Anthony Kuhn and New Delhi correspondent Julie McCarthy. Thanks to you both.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

KUHN: You're welcome, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
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