By outsourcing their manufacturing, the US and Europe are responsible for a significant portion of the pollution in developing nations like China.
New research also shows, however, that air pollution from China travels across the Pacific to the western US, decreasing air quality.
In total, the take-away from these studies may be to reaffirm that the causes of greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental pollutants are not easily isolated, nor do their effects respect national boundaries.
In the words of one of the study’s coauthors,
…there may be plenty of blame to go around.
Emissions of greenhouse gases grew twice as fast in the decade from 2000 to 2009 than they had in the previous three decades, according to a draft of the Working Group III report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) read by the Guardian.
Developing nations played a significant role in accelerating the growth of greenhouse gases — in large part because their economies rely on carbon-heavy industries and factories that produce goods for rich nations like the US and Europe.
Of the 14 gigatonnes (GT) per year that developing nations now emit, around 2 GT are due to the production of export goods. Cynthia Cummis, an expert on greenhouse gas accounting at the World Resources Institute, said:
If we are just looking at our national inventory to understand the emissions trends, it is just not telling the full picture of our impacts. We need to understand the full life cycle of all the goods and services that we are purchasing and selling.
And it’s not just goods and products that rich nations are importing, but also the consequences of air pollution like black carbon.
Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that some of the air pollution seen on the west coast of the US, such as the infamous smog in Los Angeles, is exacerbated by coal burned in China.
University of California at Irvine scientist Steve Davis, one of the study’s co-authors, said in a statement:
We’ve outsourced our manufacturing and much of our pollution, but some of it is blowing back across the Pacific to haunt us. 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.
The study identified that as much as 25% of sulfate air pollution on the California coastline and one day of severe air pollution per year in Los Angeles can be sourced back to China’s export manufacturing.
The authors of encourage greater international cooperation in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.
These studies complicate attempts to cleanly assign responsibility for climate change and environmental degradation.
At a recent fundraiser for the Democratic party, US President Barack Obama remarked that the US will be “four feet underwater” if developing nations like China and India consume fossil fuels like the US does.
His remarks acknowledge the global and complex nature of climate change — that greenhouse gas emissions from one nation exacerbate climate impacts everywhere.
They fail to address, however, the role that high US consumption plays in driving the rapidly growing emissions of nations like China.
The draft of the IPCC obtained by the Guardian states:
A growing share of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion in developing countries is released in the production of goods and services exported, notably from upper-middle-income countries to high-income countries.