Outsourcing pollution is not the solution

By Wen Jiajun
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, February 3, 2014
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Washing away the dark clouds [By Zhai Haijun/China.org.cn]

It is a well-known fact that by outsourcing manufacturing to emerging economies like China, developed countries have relocated the consequent carbon emissions and other pollutions to developing countries. For example, according to calculations by Tao Wang and Jim Watson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Sussex, 23 percent of China's emissions were due to net exports in 2004. A 2012 report by an influential committee of British Members of Parliament found that even though U.K.'s territorial carbon emissions have been decreasing since 1990, its consumption based emissions have increased, which means that the U.K. is contributing to a net increase in global warming. As we live on the same planet and no one can outsource the carbon emissions to the moon, it is obvious that such relocation and outsourcing of pollution is not a solution to challenges like global warming.

A more recent academic paper published in the prestigious PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) by nine researchers from three countries (China, United States and United Kingdom) put a different spin on this issue: What goes around come back around -- relocating production and pollution does not necessarily relieve the Western consumers from the environmental impacts of air pollution. The paper analyzed the impact of trade-related Chinese air pollutant emissions and found that in 2006, 36 percent of anthropogenic sulfur dioxide, 27 percent of nitrogen oxides, 22 percent of carbon monoxide, and 17 percent of black carbon emitted in China were associated with production of goods for export. Combined with atmospheric chemical transport model, an analysis on U.S. air quality shows that Chinese air pollution related to export production contributes, at a maximum on a daily basis, 12-24 percent of sulfate pollution over the western United States.

All this highlights the need to adopt consumption-based accounting, as well as the need for policy space for developing countries to address such issues in a proactive way. Currently, such policy space is often restrained due to international trade rules. The following is one example.

In 2007, realizing the pressure on resources created by the rapid increase in exports of energy intensive products including steel, cement and coke, the Chinese government first reduced tax rebates, then further imposed export tariffs/quotas on such products. This voluntary "border tax adjustment" measure originated from advice from the State Environment Protection Agency. It significantly lowered the exports of the targeted products -- 40 percent for certain categories of products. However, these environmental measures were challenged at the WTO as illegal by the United States and the EU, and the Chinese government was forced to scrap some of them after a WTO ruling. It is a sad example of trade rules trumping environmental concerns. With growing scientific evidence like the aforementioned paper regarding how trade plays a crucial role in trans-boundary pollutions, it is high time to question some of the existing trade rules and have a concerted international effort to better align trade with environmental integrity.

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