Chinese Pollution “Blowing Back across the Pacific to Haunt” West Coast

Thursday, January 23, 2014

China’s notoriously bad air pollution is now reaching the United States, in part because of off-shoring of manufacturing to the Asian giant by American and other companies.

Researchers from the U.S. and China—including the University of California, Irvine and Peking University—found emissions from Chinese factories are blowing across the Pacific Ocean and exacerbating poor air quality along the West Coast.

The study also says some of this exported pollution is a result of U.S. and European business decisions to buy goods made in Chinese factories instead of relying on domestic sources.

“We’ve outsourced our manufacturing and much of our pollution, but some of it is blowing back across the Pacific to haunt us,” UC Irvine Earth System scientist Steve Davis, a study coauthor, said in a prepared 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.”

Davis and his colleagues claim their work is the first to measure how much of the pollution reaching the Western U.S. originates from China’s production of cellphones, televisions and other consumer products exported to the U.S. and other countries. About 21% of China’s export-related emissions—for such pollutants as anthropogenic sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and black carbon—came from exports that went from China to the United States.

It only takes days for chemical-filled wind to blow across the ocean from China and reach the U.S. West Coast. The researchers say nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide emitted by Chinese factories are responsible for at least one extra day a year of smog that exceeds federal ozone limits in Los Angeles. China’s trans-Pacific emissions also cause up to 25% of the sulfate pollution on the West Coast on certain days, according to the study.

The study additionally determined that, using 2006 as its model, Chinese manufacturing for the export of goods to the United States was responsible for between roughly 5-7% of harmful emissions in its own country.

“This is a reminder to us that a significant percentage of China’s emissions of traditional pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions are connected to the products we buy and use every day in the U.S.,” UCLA law professor Alex L. Wang told The New York Times. “We should be concerned, not only because this pollution is harming the citizens of China, but because it’s damaging the air quality in parts of the U.S.”

“International cooperation to reduce transboundary transport of air pollution must confront the question of who is responsible for emissions in one country during production of goods to support consumption in another,” Davis and his colleagues wrote.

–Noel Brinkerhoff, Danny Biederman


To Learn More:

Made in China for Us: Air Pollution as Well as Exports (UC Irvine)

China's Exports Linked to Western U.S. Air Pollution (by Elizabeth Landau, CNN)

China Exports Pollution to U.S., Study Finds (by Edward Wong, New York Times)

China’s International Trade and Air Pollution in the United States (by Jintai Lin, Da Pan, Steven J. Davis, Qiang Zhang, Kebin Hed Can Wang, David G. Streets, Donald J. Wuebbles and Dabo Guan; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) (abstract)

Asian Pollution Hitting U.S. West Coast (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Who’s to Blame for China’s Pollution? (AllGov)

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