China's most polluted province isn't Beijing

Motorcyclists in Zhengzhou, Henan province. Image: Getty.

In a typically joyous year-beginning celebration, Greenpeace has released a round-up of China’s pollution over the course of 2015. There's good news and bad news. 

Good news first: things appear to be improving. Average PM2.5 concentrations (that is, the concentration of particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) dropped by 10 per cent nationwide compared to 2014. The concentrations in Beijing, Shenzhen and Guangzhou – all big-hitter polluting cities fell considerably. 

Now for the bad news. That average PM2.5 concentration? It's still five times the level recommended by the World Health Organisation. This implies that, while efforts across China to lower pollution, in particular by cutting down on coal consumption, are having some effect, they aren't going far enough. 

Someone else's problem 

The report also hints at another issue. It's headed by a list of provinces, ranked worst to best in terms of pollution levels. Beijing, surprisingly, is high up the list at number two.

But the top spot is occupied by a province containing none of the cities usually seen on China's pollution blacklist: Henan province. 

In April last year, Greenpeace warned tha,t while pollution seemed to be improving in eastern cities like Beijing, the roots of the problem had been shifted rather than solved. Industrial regions around Beijing, and lesser-known provinces like Henan, have attracted heavy industry just as cities like Beijing make it less welcome, which may explain Henan's slightly unepected crowning as "polluting province of the year". 

In a statement at the time, Zhang Kai, a campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia, said: 

"Armed with this information, the government must now ensure that pollution is not simply relocated to other regions, and that the same strict measures enacted in cities like Beijing are actually enforced across the country." 

 This demonstrates the limitations of city- or province-level targets when it comes to climate change: it can become pretty easy to make pollution-heavy industries someone else's problem. Luckily, China has instigated national policies too, like a moratorium on opening new coal mines. Here's to a better 2016. 


The best way to make housing more affordable? Raise interest rates

Lol, no. Image: Getty.

Speaking to the Conservative Party conference in September 2017, the UK prime minister, Theresa May, gave a stark assessment of the UK housing market which made for depressing listening for many young people: “For many the chance of getting onto the housing ladder has become a distant dream”, she said.

Now a new report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) provides further, clear evidence of this. The study finds that home ownership among 25 to 34-year-olds has declined sharply over the past 20 years. Home ownership rates have declined from 43 per cent at age 27 for someone born in the late 1970s, to just 25 per cent for someone aged 27 who was born in the late 1980s.

The most significant decline has been for middle-income young people, whose rate of home ownership has fallen from 65 per cent in 1995-6 to 27 per cent now – most significantly hitting aspirant buyers in London and the South-East.

Causes and consequences

The IFS study lays the blame for all this on the growing gap between house prices and incomes. Adjusting for inflation, house prices have risen 150 per cent in the 20 years to 2015-16, while real incomes for 25 to 34-year-olds have grown by 22 per cent (and almost all of that growth happened before the 2008 crash).

A bleak picture. Image: Institute for Fiscal Studies.

But, as the report acknowledges, the problem goes much deeper than this. Home ownership rates differ by region. Although there has been a decline in home ownership rates for young people across all areas of Great Britain, the decline is less significant in the North East and Cumbria as well as in Scotland and the South West. The biggest decline in ownership has been in the South-East, the North-West (excluding Cumbria) and London.

So a person aged 25 to 34 is more than twice as likely to own their own home in Cumbria, as their counterpart in London. Worse, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to own their own homes – even after controlling for differences in education and earnings. Home ownership continues to reflect a deeper inequality of opportunity in our society.

More houses needed

Part of the problem is that both Labour and Conservative governments have seen housing as a single, stand-alone market and have focused their attention on what is happening to prices in London. But housing is a number of different markets, which have regional variations and different interactions between the owner-occupier, private rented and social rented sectors.

Regional variations in house prices for similar sized properties reflect the imbalances of the economy: it is heavily reliant on financial services, which are concentrated in London, while the public sector makes up a significant share of many local economies – particularly in the North. Migration from across the UK to overcrowded and expensive areas – such as London and the South-East – have put property prices in those areas even further out of reach for would-be buyers.

To make matters worse, both Labour and Conservative governments have routinely failed to build enough houses. While the current government’s aim to build 300,000 new properties a year by 2020 is welcome, it is simply not enough to meet the backlog in demand – let alone address the fundamental affordability problem.

Where homes are being built, they’re often the wrong types of homes, in the wrong places. Family homes are being built, despite there being some 4m under-occupied such properties across the country.

Not that long ago, government was reducing the housing stock in many parts of the North, through the disastrous Housing Market Renewal programme. Houses are currently being sold in smaller cities such as Liverpool and Stoke-on-Trent for just £1. And none of the government’s actions suggest that ministers understand these issues, or are prepared to address them.

House price inflation – and the awful affect it is having on home ownership rates for young people – is part of a wider problem of the global asset bubble. This bubble has seen huge increases in the price of assets – stocks, housing, bonds – in high income countries such as the UK. Successive governments have helped to fuel this through quantitative easing, ultra-cheap money and successive raids on pension funds.

The ConversationWhat’s needed to address this asset bubble is a substantive increase in interest rates. But while this may slow the growth in house prices, the sad truth is it will do nothing to make housing more affordable for most young people.

Chris O'Leary, Deputy Director, Policy Evaluation and Research Unit and Senior Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.