Pollution from Chinese exports back ‘to haunt us’

Our toys, clothes, electronics, and countless other products are made in China. Now it turns out that a significant fraction of our pollution is made in China too. When Chinese factories manufacture products for the United States and other countries, their pollutants waft across the ocean and end up in our backyard.

“We’ve outsourced our manufacturing and much of our pollution, but some of it is blowing back across the Pacific to haunt us,” said study co-author Steve Davis of the University of California, Irvine in a press release.

The production of exports in China skyrocketed by 390 percent from 2000 to 2007. To make those products, Chinese factories often burn fossil fuels and use inefficient combustion technology. That means that manufacturing in China is particularly bad for the environment; in 2006, for instance, China’s air pollution per unit of GDP was 6 to 33 times higher than in the United States.

We can’t put the sole blame on China for that pollution though — after all, Americans are demanding the products. And research has begun to suggest that the pollutants don’t stay in China but travel to other parts of the world.

The study authors estimated the pollution involved in making Chinese exports and how much of that pollution ended up in the United States. They found that in 2006, 3 to 10 percent of annual average surface sulfate levels, 1 to 3 percent of black carbon, and 0.5 to 1.5 percent of ozone in the western United States came from China’s export production. Those numbers fluctuated from day to day; for example, sulfate and black carbon contributions sometimes reached 24 and 11 percent, respectively.

Overall air quality in the United States is better than it would be if we manufactured products ourselves. But one coast is getting the short end of the stick; this benefit “was at the expense of air quality deterioration over the western United States and the populous Chinese regions,” the authors write. They recommend upgrading factories in China to improve efficiency and control emissions.Roberta Kwok | 21 January 2014

Source: Lin, J. et al. 2014. China’s international trade and air pollution in the United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences doi: 10.1073/pnas.1312860111.

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