Double Impact: Why China Needs Coordinated Air Quality and Climate Strategies

February 25, 2015

Written by Valerie Karplus, an Assistant Professor in the Global Economics and Management Group at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the Director of the MIT-Tsinghua China Energy and Climate Project, this paper examines China’s current approach to tackling air pollution and carbon mitigation nationally and argues that more incentives are needed if China hopes to meet its “peak carbon” goal by 2030.

The urgency with which Beijing is tackling air pollution is certainly positive, and such actions will lead to concomitant benefits in curtailing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, to a certain extent. But Karplus argues that it would be a mistake to view the current initiatives on air pollution, which are primarily aimed at scrubbing coal-related pollutants or reducing coal use, as perfectly aligned with carbon reduction.

This is not the case, according to Karplus. Air pollution reduction is only partly aligned with CO2 reduction, and vice versa. In addition to air pollution efforts, effective co-control requires a more significant step: a meaningful price on carbon. This is especially so if Beijing is to realize its 2030 pledge. Put another way, air pollution control efforts, while essential, will only take China part of the way toward its stated carbon reduction goals.

One major reason is because while low-cost solutions for air pollution and carbon reduction can overlap, the reality is that co-benefits run out after low-cost opportunities to reduce or displace the fuels responsible for both carbon and air pollution emissions—mostly coal in China’s case—are exhausted. In other words, co-benefits diminish over time as greater reductions are needed, according to Karplus.

About the Author

Valerie J. Karplus

Assistant Professor in the Global Economics and Management Group, MIT Sloan School of Management


Valerie J. Karplus is an Assistant Professor in the Global Economics and Management Group at the MIT Sloan School of Management. She leads the MIT-Tsinghua China Energy and Climate Project, an international collaborative team of researchers based at MIT and Tsinghua University, focused on China’s role in global energy markets and climate change mitigation. Dr. Karplus has previously worked in the development policy section of the German Federal Foreign Office in Berlin, Germany, as a Robert Bosch Foundation Fellow, and in the biotechnology industry in Beijing, China, both as a Luce Scholar and as an employee of the National Institute of Biological Sciences, Beijing. Her research focuses on resource and environmental management in firms operating in diverse national and industry contexts, with an emphasis on emerging markets and the role of policy. Dr. Karplus is an expert on China’s energy system, including technology trends, energy system governance, and the sustainability impact of business decisions. She holds a BS in biochemistry and political science from Yale University and a PhD in engineering systems from MIT.