EFFECTS OF COAL-BASED AIR POLLUTION ON MORTALITY RATES: New evidence from nineteenth century Britain

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Samuel Griffiths (1873) The Black Country in the 1870s. In Griffiths’ Guide to the iron trade of Great Britain.

Industrialised cities in mid-nineteenth century Britain probably suffered from similar levels of air pollution as urban centres in China and India do today. What’s more, the damage to health caused by the burning of coal was very high, reducing life expectancy by more than 5% in the most polluted cities like Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham. It was also responsible for a significant proportion of the higher mortality rates in British cities compared with rural parts of the country.

 These are among the findings of new research by Brian Beach (College of William & Mary) and Walker Hanlon (NYU Stern School of Business), which is published in the Economic Journal. Their study shows the potential value of history for providing insights into the long-run consequences of air pollution.

From Beijing to Delhi and Mexico City to Jakarta, cities across the world struggle with high levels of air pollution. To what extent does severe air pollution affect health and broader economic development for these cities? While future academics will almost surely debate this question, assessing the long-run consequences of air pollution for modern cities will not be possible for decades.

But severe air pollution is not a new phenomenon; Britain’s industrial cities of the nineteenth century, for example, also faced very high levels of air pollution. Because of this, researchers argue that history has the potential to provide valuable insights into the long-run consequences of air pollution.

One challenge in studying historical air pollution is that direct pollution measures are largely unavailable before the mid-twentieth century. This study shows how historical pollution levels in England and Wales can be inferred by combining data on the industrial composition of employment in local areas in 1851 with information on the amount of coal used per worker in each industry.

This makes it possible to estimate the amount of coal used in over 581 districts covering all of England and Wales. Because coal was by far the most important pollutant in Britain in the nineteenth century (as well as much of the twentieth century), this provides a way of approximating local industrial pollution emission levels.

The results are consistent with what historical sources suggest: the researchers find high levels of coal use in a broad swath of towns stretching from Lancashire and the West Riding down into Staffordshire, as well as in the areas around Newcastle, Cardiff and Birmingham.

By comparing measures of local coal-based pollution to mortality data, the study shows that air pollution was a major contributor to mortality in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century. In the most polluted locations – places like Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham – the results show that air pollution resulting from industrial coal use reduced life expectancy by more than 5%.

One potential concern is that locations with more industrial coal use could have had higher mortality rates for other reasons. For example, people living in these industrial areas could have been poorer, infectious disease may have been more common or jobs may have been more dangerous.

The researchers deal with this concern by looking at how coal use in some parts of the country affected mortality in other areas that were, given the predominant wind direction, typically downwind. They show that locations which were just downwind of major coal-using areas had higher mortality rates than otherwise similar locations which were just upwind of these areas.

These results help to explain why cities in the nineteenth century were much less healthy than more rural areas – the so-called urban mortality penalty. Most existing work argues that the high mortality rates observed in British cities in the nineteenth century were due to the impact of infectious diseases, bad water and unclean food.

The new results show that in fact about one third of the higher mortality rate in cities in the nineteenth century was due to exposure to high levels of air pollution due to the burning of coal by industry.

In addition to assessing the effects of coal use on mortality, the researchers use these effects to back out very rough estimates of historical particulate pollution levels. Their estimates indicate that by the mid-nineteenth century, industrialised cities in Britain were probably as polluted as industrial cities in places like China and India are today.

These findings shed new light on the impact of air pollution in nineteenth century Britain and lay the groundwork for further research analysing the long-run effects of air pollution in cities.

 

To contact the authors:  Brian Beach (bbbeach@wm.edu); Walker Hanlon (whanlon@stern.nyu.edu)

Legacies of inequality: the case of Brazil

by Evan Wigton-Jones (University of California, Riverside)

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The Rio Team. In Kidder, D.P., Brazil and the Brazilians : portrayed in historical and descriptive sketches, Philadelphia 1857. Available at https://archive.org/details/brazilbrazilians00kidd

 

 Recent years have witnessed a renewed interest in issues of economic inequality. This research offers a contribution to this discussion by analysing the effects of inequality within Brazil.

Firstly, it shows that the climate is a key determinant of long-run inequality in Brazilian context. It uses data from a national census conducted in 1920 to show that warmer regions with high rainfall were characterised by plantation economies, with a wealthy agricultural elite and a large underclass of poor labourers. In contrast, cooler and drier areas were conducive to smaller family farms, and hence resulted in a more equitable society.

The study then uses information from the 2000 census to show that this local inequality has persisted for generations: areas that were historically unequal in 1920 are generally unequal today as well.

Finally, the research shows that greater long-term inequality inhibits regional development. It also shows evidence that inequality affects local governance, as municipal spending on health, education and welfare is significantly lower in more economically unequal areas.

To show the climate’s influence on local inequality, the study created an index that quantifies the relative suitability of land for plantation agricultural production. The metric is based on the temperature and precipitation requirements of different crops that are uniquely plantation or smallholder in their method of production. For example, sugarcane has historically been produced on large plantations, while wheat was often cultivated on small farms.

The research then shows that localities with a favourable climate for plantation agriculture contained a more unequal distribution of land. To measure the concentration of land ownership, it calculates a Gini index – a standard measure of inequality that ranges from 0 (perfect equality) to 100 (one individual holds all land).

As Brazil’s economy was predominantly agrarian in 1920, this distribution of land is a good proxy for that of income and wealth. The research combines this with data on municipal spending in the 1920s to show that local governments with higher land inequality spent less on education, health, public goods and public electricity. For example, a one unit increase in the Gini index is associated with a .76 percentage point decline in such spending.

The effects of this inequality have ramifications for contemporary socio-economic welfare in Brazil. Not only has local inequality persisted throughout the twentieth century, but it has also hindered present-day municipal development. Here it measures local development using the municipal-level human development index (HDI) – a metric that accounts for education, public health and income – for the year 2000.

It shows that historically unequal areas score much lower on the HDI: a one unit increase in 1920 land inequality is associated with a reduction of .38 points in this index (which, like the Gini index, is measured on a scale from 0 to 100, with a higher score indicating greater development).

Furthermore, the legacies of historical inequality are still manifest in contemporary local governance: a one unit increase in historical inequality is associated with a .49 percentage point decrease in municipal-level welfare spending for the year 2000.

These findings suggest several important conclusions:

  • First, the environment may play an important role in determining inequality and long-term development, even within countries.
  • Second, economic disparities can persist for generations.
  • Lastly, inequality can have a corrosive effect on welfare and governance, even at a local level.

It should be noted, however, that this study has focused on inequality within Brazil. The extent to which these findings can be generalised to other settings requires further study.