By Kim Robson:
We’re all aware of the deadly effects of smog. China generates the world’s worst air pollution. According to a new study from the Peking University in Beijing, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a large portion of their smog is produced as a result of manufacturing goods destined for the United States.
The study found that, in 2006 alone, approximately 20% to 35% of China’s air pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide, were associated with the production of goods for export; and that about 20% of those goods were bound for the United States. In addition, by catching a lift on strong winds associated with the jet stream, some of China’s smog is also making its way across the Pacific to the western United States. The PNAS study places responsibility for China’s pollution on both sides of the Pacific.
China is now the world’s leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Air pollution might have far greater climatic effects than previously thought, such as contributing to more intense cyclones over the northwestern Pacific Ocean. Burning coal is the major culprit, and it is now on track to surpass oil as the world’s top energy source. Also, 2.8 billion people still rely on wood, crop waste, dung, and other biomass to cook and heat their homes.
From 1950 to 1980, the Chinese government provided free coal for home and office winter heating systems for anyone living north of the Huai River and Qinling Mountain Range. Coal is no longer free in the north, but it is still subsidized. Though the policy’s purpose was to provide warmth during winter to those who needed it most, the result was a dramatic rise in mortality due to cardiorespiratory illness. Life expectancy in northern China is estimated to be 5.5 years shorter than in southern China, a difference almost entirely due to heart and lung disease related to air pollution from the burning of coal and from factory emissions.
“It’s not that the Chinese government set out to cause this,” said Michael Greenstone, economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who collaborated with researchers in China. “This was the unintended consequence of a policy that must have appeared quite sensible.”
Long-term exposure to each additional 100 micrograms per cubic meter of total suspended particulates (TSP) is
associated with reduction in life expectancy at birth of about three years. Particulate matter levels were more than 400 micrograms per cubic meter in China during the years studied. Beijing made headlines in January, when its air pollution levels reached a staggering 700 micrograms per cubic meter.
In contrast, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) health-based national air quality standard is 50 micrograms per cubic meter.
Pollution in China has been so severe that aircraft have been grounded, roads closed, and tourism numbers impacted, while the direct danger posed to human health was underlined by the World Health Organization (WHO). Air pollution was recently classified by WHO as a carcinogen.
In Beijing and six northern provinces, toxic smog is now so dense that its effects are comparable to that of a nuclear winter, hindering photosynthesis of plants. If it lingers much longer, it could affect food production. Seedlings in Beijing are taking over twice as long to grow as those in a lab at China Agricultural University’s College of Water Resources and Civil Engineering.
The PNAS study illustrates a new way of looking at foreign pollution. In terms of international policy, should we be considering the consumer? The U.S. is a major consumer of goods from China. We should be performing a consumer-based analysis to fully account for who is responsible for China’s and other countries’ air pollution and its deleterious effects on human life. This way of looking at pollution puts some fraction of the responsibility on consumers as well as manufacturers who produce emissions.