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COVID-19 Brings Blue Skies, Improved Air Quality In China

NOEL KING, HOST:

When the COVID-19 lockdowns began, people on Chinese social media started posting pictures of blue skies. The lockdown had made air quality better in cities. Sam Cai and Stacey Vanek Smith at The Indicator explained there is an economic term for those blue skies. It's called an experience good.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

STACEY VANEK SMITH: Siqi Zheng is a professor at MIT, and she's been hearing from some of her friends and family back in Beijing.

SIQI ZHENG: My parents and my friends in Beijing really noticed much more blue-sky days.

VANEK SMITH: Siqi had a theory - that after COVID, people in Beijing would want a different, greener economic recovery. She thought, once they had a taste for the cleaner air they experienced during COVID and those bluer skies, they would want to keep them.

SAM CAI: Siqi collected social media posts and air quality data from 49 Chinese cities where people cared a lot about air quality and where air quality improved during the COVID lockdown.

VANEK SMITH: And Siqi realized that the social media in these cities was buzzing with talk about environmentalism. And after analyzing local policymaking documents, Siqi discovered that this buzz was leading to more environmentally friendly transportation and industrial policies being put into place after lockdown.

CAI: And, Stacey, this is where the economic term experience good comes in.

VANEK SMITH: I love an economic term. Lay it out, Sam. Give us the definition.

CAI: So Siqi's hypothesis that people would not realize how much they valued regular blue-sky days until it actually happened during COVID, that's an experience good. I'll let Siqi's co-author, economist Matt Kahn, explain.

MATT KAHN: One of the first experience goods in my life was the movie "Star Wars." I think it came out in 1977 when I was 11 years old. And if you had said to me before I saw the movie that a bunch of robots walking around in this outer space world, that this would be so important to me, I would've just shrugged if you had just read me the plot. And so an experience good is something that you don't know how much you value it until you've experienced it.

VANEK SMITH: So experience goods are things that you aren't really sure how to value until you've tried it out, so things like trying out a new car, a musical instrument or seeing how cool it is for robots to, you know, walk onto a Death Star.

CAI: Economists typically consider experience goods to be things that can be bought and sold. But Matt and Siqi thought, hey, this idea should apply to all sorts of new experiences, and COVID has certainly been full of those - widespread working from home, government stimulus checks and, of course, blue skies.

KAHN: It hasn't been thought of as an experience good before. But in cities in India, in cities in China, it's just been polluted day after day, and people grow up not knowing what their life would be like if the skies were blue.

CAI: Matt says the reason his paper with Siqi is so important is because thinking about clean air as an experience good demonstrates the power of something researchers may have been underestimating in the fight against climate change - our imaginations.

VANEK SMITH: And it's this imagination that could allow us to turn a temporary experience into a permanent reality.

CAI: Sam Cai.

VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOKHOV'S "SUMMER SHIMMER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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