We are all aware of the value of clean skies and the costs of pollution, so isn’t it time to put more economic pressure on governments and companies to clean up?
I first considered the potential for a smog allowance while I lived in Beijing (my heavily polluted home from 2003-2012) and the idea only strengthened after I moved under the mostly blue heavens of Rio (2012-2017).
My experience of these two very different cities confirms what ought to be blindingly apparent: that quality of life gets a big boost when you do not have to worry about what you breathe. This should be reflected in salaries and taxes.
Companies should be obliged to pay more to workers who cannot rely on a healthy oxygen supply. This would give them an incentive to clean up their own acts and to put pressure on neighbouring firms and hosting municipalities to tackle wider sources of pollution, such as traffic, factories, building sites and coal or wood-burning stoves and barbecues.
For the worker, the extra income could offset both the short-term cost of air-purifiers and face masks – if that is an option – and the long-term risks of asthma and bronchial disease (both of which I suffered in Beijing). It would also serve as a form of family compensation for particularly polluted days when children are told they must not go out at playtime and adults have to skip plans to go jogging or hiking – a frequent concern when I was living in Beijing, though not once an issue in Rio.
The amount of the smog allowance should vary according to the air quality. One way might be to calculate how many days per year the pollution exceeds WHO guidelines (for example, £100 for 10 days, £200 for 20 days). Or it could be assessed by how far beyond the safe standard the air becomes. “Crazy Bad” readings – the term used to describe extremely smoggy days – should incur crazy high costs.
Some transnational companies already pay “hardship allowances” to expatriates in posts where healthcare, education and other living standard indexes are deemed below international norms. If pollution became a bigger part of this calculation, then firms would look more closely at air quality when deciding where to locate offices and factories. This would, in turn, encourage municipalities to clean up in order to attract investment.
Taken a step further, the state should pay smog allowances or oblige local authorities to give council tax rebates to residents who live in polluted areas. The pressure on their budgets would prompt them to crack down harder on polluters.
This might not change the world, but it should make people think more seriously about pollution – and who should bear the costs.