Airpocalypse Now!...Profit From China's Air Pollution
by Byron King
Have you seen the news reports about the awful air pollution across China? With all its breakneck growth over the past 25 years or so, the words 'air pollution' and China are almost one and the same. Chinese growth has created huge investment opportunities, in recent years. But now we're at a critical point in the "China story," where Chinese air pollution is investable, too. Think platinum and palladium.
Air pollution in the Middle Kingdom is downright awful. Beijing often disappears into a thick, pea soup of smog which reduces visibility to just a few feet, in many instances.
On Jan. 12, an air monitor atop the US Embassy in Beijing recorded an astonishing 755-reading by the Air Quality Index devised by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For perspective, this scale usually goes no higher than 500. Furthermore, the EPA considers any reading above 100 to be unhealthy for sensitive groups. Readings above 400 are hazardous for everyone.
Air pollution is so bad, in fact, that the usually taciturn Chinese leadership is permitting public discussion about the issue, in that we've got to do something sort of way. No less than the hardline, Communist party mouthpiece People's Daily newspaper asked, in a front page editorial the other day, 'How can we get out of this suffocating siege of pollution?'
In a recent interview with the South China Morning Post, Qu Geping, China's Minister of Environmental Protection between 1987 and 1993, stated, I have to admit that (national and local) governments have done far from enough to rein in the wild pursuit of economic growth, and failed to avoid some of the worst pollution scenarios we, as policymakers, had predicted.
This is about as close to admitting a mistake as China's top-down government will ever come. Let' peer just a bit further behind the Great Wall. Why, exactly, is the air so bad in China, just now? Well, it's winter, and the wind isn't blowing the air pollution out to sea, and over towards Korea and Japan, which is the usual pathway of nature.
Chinese air pollution casts a global shadow, according to several years worth of science reporting in The New York Times. Here in North America, air monitoring stations up and down the west coast ”California to British Columbia” routinely trigger alarms when clouds of Chinese pollution arrive, essentially intact, after a trans-Pacific journey.
At least 30% of the air pollution on the US west coast is attributable directly to imported Chinese clouds of gunk, according to Chemical & Engineering News.
But blowing China's air pollution out to sea, and over to California, is a non-solution to a critical problem and a temporary one, at that. The key is to find the origins of China's air pollution problem. China needs to go to the source.
The worst of China's air pollution, just now, is comprised of fine particulates. It's the small stuff that forms into smog, gets into peoples' lungs and causes all manner of other health and safety problems.
What's the origin? Well, most of the really bad material in China's air comes from uncontrolled diesel exhaust. This exhaust spews from the tailpipes of literally millions of trucks and other diesel vehicles that ply China's roads, as well as innumerable electrical generators that back-up China' unreliable power grid.
As I dug into the news accounts of the air pollution crisis in China, over the past couple of weeks, I found a few (very few!) references to the widespread lack of catalytic converters on most Chinese trucks and stationary diesel generators.
According to one account, from the Associated Press, emission control devices can add up to $3,200 to the price of a truck or large generator. According to John Zeng, of the research firm LMC Automotive, Ltd., It's not a problem of technology. It's more about consumer affordability. Increasing the emissions standard greatly increases the cost.
Look back over the past quarter century of development in China. China was a poor country, in that its economic starting point was very low on the development ladder. It's no wonder that vehicle- and generator-buyers didn't want to spend extra money, up front, for pollution-control equipment.
This kind of micro-economic choice may have made sense for the individual buyer, over the past 25 years or so. But when you add it all up, and calculate the long-term, macro-effect? Now China has millions of vehicles that lack catalytic controls. It's no wonder that China's air is so fouled.
China has reached its pollution tipping point. The Chinese are going to have to do something before they suffocate to death.for emission control? It's the catalytic converter. In particular, it's the cost of platinum and/or palladium metal that catalyzes the chemical reactions that dramatically reduce exhaust emissions. Without these scarce metals, no one can manufacture a catalytic converter. So platinum and palladium are essential metals for these attachments to diesel engines.
What's the key part of that $3,200 extra price for emission control? It's the catalytic converter. In particular, it's the cost of platinum and/or palladium metal that catalyzes the chemical reactions that dramatically reduce exhaust emissions. Without these scarce metals, no one can manufacture a catalytic converter. So platinum and palladium are essential metals for these attachments to diesel engines.
Palladium, in particular, is in the spotlight since it is the metal of choice for catalytic converters in diesel engines. And as the chart below illustrates, annual auto-catalyst demand is currently soaking up a whopping 81% of the world's annual mined supply of palladium, up from about 60% just a few years ago.
This chart also illustrates that the palladium price trend tracks very closely with the auto-catalyst demand trend. Back in 2000, for example, when auto-catalyst demand was consuming more than 100% of the mined supply (above-ground stockpiles plugged the supply gap), the palladium price soared to more than $1,000 an ounce!
Which brings us back to China and its pollution problem, which is literally 'off the charts.' There's reason to believe that the Chinese will start requiring more emission control devices on all new trucks and generators, if not requiring retro-fit to older models. And what will this do to demand for platinum and palladium? It's going to rise, and prices will strengthen.
The bottom line is that we're looking at an entire nation ”China” awakening to the problems of air pollution. The engineering solution is that China must solve its problems by increasing the use of catalytic converters on its fleet of diesel engines. This can only be good for platinum and palladium demand and pricing, going forward.