Emissions outsourced to China return to U.S. in form of air pollution

January 20, 2014

Adult female Rhinella yunga
Courtesy of Jintai Lin et al. (2014)

Twenty percent of China's air pollution can be attributed to goods exported to America, with some of those emissions drifting back to the Western United States, finds a study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The research, conducted by an international team of researchers, estimates that Los Angeles sees at least one extra day of severe air pollution due to nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide emitted by Chinese factories making products for export. On some days as much as a quarter of sulfate pollution on the California coastline can be attributed to Chinese export production.

“We’ve outsourced our manufacturing and much of our pollution, but some of it is blowing back across the Pacific to haunt us,” said University of California at Irvine scientist Steve Davis, one of the study's co-authors, in a statement. “Given the complaints about how Chinese pollution is corrupting other countries’ air, this paper shows that there may be plenty of blame to go around.”

“When you buy a product at Wal-Mart, it has to be manufactured somewhere. The product doesn’t contain the pollution, but creating it caused the pollution.”

The findings suggest that outsourcing emissions to China isn't ultimately an effective means to reduce pollution. The researchers therefore argue for greater international cooperation in reducing "transboundary" air pollution and addressing who is responsible for emissions from production and consumption.

They note that bringing Chinese air quality regulations up to U.S. standards and implementing energy efficiency programs could cut China's emissions up to 60 percent.

NASA image showing air pollution over China
Cool winter weather probably contributed to the build-up of haze over Eastern China on December 15, 2004. Much of China relies on burning coal for winter heating and energy, and that produces the black aerosols that form the haze seen here. NASA image courtesy the SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE. Caption courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory.

    ABSTRACT: An assessment of the impacts of trade-related Chinese air pollutant emissions on the global atmospheric environment attributes more than 20% of the pollution to the production of China-to-United States exports. Jintai Lin and colleagues quantified China’s export and import manufacturing emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and black carbon between 2000 and 2009 using a model constructed from economic and emission data. In 2006 alone, the authors found, 17-36% of the pollutants were associated with production of goods for export, with 21% of those amounts attributed to production of goods for the United States. The same year, sulfate pollution increased over the western United States, which coincided with the outsourcing of manufacturing to China from the United States. Conversely, pollution over the eastern United States decreased, reflecting the competing effect between enhanced atmospheric transport of Chinese pollution and reduced United States emissions. Differences between United States and Chinese emissions suggest that production-based Chinese air pollutant emissions could be reduced by 22-62% if China enhanced energy efficiency and deployed emission control strategies as effective as those used in the United States. According to the authors, international trade and environmental agreements should confront the question of responsibility for emissions in one country during production of goods for consumption in another.

CITATION: Jintai Lin et al. China’s international trade and air pollution in the United States. PNAS Online Early Edition for the week of Jan 20-Jan 24, 2014. pnas.1312860111

mongabay.com (January 20, 2014).

Emissions outsourced to China return to U.S. in form of air pollution.