On the heels of Hillary Clinton's climate-focused Beijing visit, a new report details just how much CO2 the West gives to China when it buys "made in China." About 9% of total Chinese emissions are the result of manufacturing goods for the US, it finds, while 6% come from producing goods for Europe. But who is responsible, and how will they clean up China's "carbon sweatshops"?
It's often been noted that China's huge CO2 emissions -- the world's highest -- are partly the result of manufacturing goods for the West. The phenomenon amounts to pollution outsourcing, not unlike the shipping of the West's used Chinese-made goods back to China for disposal.
The new research, reported in the Guardian and due to be published this month in the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters, shows that about a third of all Chinese carbon emissions between 2002 and 2005 were the result of producing goods for export.
This comes after recent research by Carnegie Mellon that found that 33 percent of China's emissions come from goods made for export, and findings by the Stockholm Environment Institute that the UK's carbon emissions are actually 49% higher than London claims.
The report underscores that "offshored emissions" is an unresolved issue ahead of climate talks in Copenhagen, where world leaders will attempt to make a deal to replace the Kyoto protocol.
The unseen costs of Western manufacturing in China go beyond greenhouse gas emissions. They extend to unintended consequences in places like Africa, where China unsustainably extracts its raw materials in exchange for controversially lax treaties and assistance, and to the destruction of vast swathes of forest, which provide wood for US-bound furniture.
They have also helped give China an economic edge over the US, which has sold much of its debt to Beijing, at the expense, human rights groups point out, of American political leverage.
How might such outsourced pollution be addressed? The Guardian quotes Dieter Helm, professor of economics at Oxford University, who argues that "focusing on consumption rather than production of emissions is the only intellectually and ethically sound solution."
A carbon import tax could be one solution, so long as it wouldn't be too politically or economically difficult for Western and Chinese officials and consumers. One member of China's delegation to climate talks last year wondered aloud if the West couldn't change its consumption habits for the good of China. Not that other Chinese (or American) officials want that: the economies of China and the US have long been powered by the current "made in China" trade arrangement.
And while manufacturing for the West in China has driven up emissions there, measuring and parsing the precise footprints and taxing countries accordingly could be highly difficult. As Jonathon Porritt, head of the UK's Sustainable Development Commission, says: "Ultimately, the only place to register emissions is in the country of origin - in this case, China. Otherwise, the whole global accounting system for greenhouse gases will be undermined by the complexity of double-accounting."
Meanwhile, it is unlikely that Western countries will give China money to clean up. But programs like the UN's Clean Development Mechanism could help.
Either way, the study highlights the problems of a cap-and-trade system in the US without a stronger international treaty: US officials have said that would give China unfair economic advantages, but it would also drive a shift of even more Western pollution to the East.
While Western politicians have said that their own emissions restrictions won't matter without restrictions in China, more than a few Chinese officials have pointed fingers in the other direction. But both sides should remember that no matter how they got there, wherever they may be, polluting factories and power plants are hurting China right now. And with continued attention to regulation, legal enforcement and civil society, the Chinese government is not incapable of cleaning up the country's mess.
The West certainly has a role to play in China's clean-up too, though what that is remains unclear. Still, recognizing responsibility is crucial, and big Western companies like Wal-Mart have been wise to take the lead ahead of governments (and perhaps are more effective at cleaning up).
But conversely, laying blame, as both sides have done, doesn't go very far. It turns climate change into yet another venue for political and cultural recriminations.
With the political will and scientific consensus that has emerged in recent months on both sides, it looks like it could be much more productive than many other contentious discussions about topics like Tibet. But don't be fooled: it may not be explicitly political, but the topic of climate and pollution is ultimately about some of the most fundamental human rights.
In recent years, consumers in the US huffed over the dangers of Chinese-made goods to kids in the US. Now they and their governments might start thinking harder about what those goods are doing to kids in China.
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