Western pol­luters are free rid­ers in China

China Daily (Canada) - - COMMENT -

Just two days af­ter US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama called China a free rider in an in­ter­view with New York Times colum­nist Thomas Fried­man, US Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry, in his Asia pol­icy speech at the EastWest Cen­ter in Hawaii lastWed­nes­day, listed cli­mate change a com­mon cause for the two largest green­house gas emit­ters on the planet.

That is in­deed true. Al­though China’s per capita car­bon emis­sion last year was less than that in Europe and only about one-third the level of the United States, its en­vi­ron­men­tal chal­lenge as ev­i­denced by the wors­en­ing pol­lu­tion in air, wa­ter and soil has be­come ever more se­ri­ous.

How­ever, as some Amer­i­cans tout the fact that theUS has pumped less car­bon diox­ide into the at­mos­phere than years ago, they ig­nore the fact that a large por­tion of the green­house gases pro­duced in China and other pol­lu­tions are a re­sult of China be­ing the man­u­fac­turer of the world.

That is to say that much of the pol­lu­tion and heavy car­bon emis­sion in­dus­tries have been re­lo­cated from theUS and other de­vel­oped coun­tries to China in the past decades.

In a study pub­lished early this year in the jour­nal of Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Academy of Sciences, re­searchers, led by Lin Jin­tai of Pek­ing Univer­sity in China, found that, in 2006 alone, about one-fifth to one-third of China’s air pol­lu­tion, in­clud­ing sul­fur diox­ide, ni­tro­gen ox­ide and car­bon monox­ide, were as­so­ci­ated with ex­port manufacturing. And about one­fifth of the amounts were di­rectly linked to the pro­duc­tion of goods for the US mar­ket. As China sur­passed the US and Ger­many to be­come the top trad­ing na­tion in the world in the past years, China’s ex­ports to the US have also shot up more than 50 per­cent from 2006 to 2013, mean­ing that US con­sumers have left an even deeper car­bon foot­print in China.

If a free rider is one who en­joys ser­vices with­out pay­ing the cost, such pol­lu­tion re­lo­ca­tion is worse be­cause it causes huge dam­ages to the host na­tions and their peo­ple. For ex­am­ple, the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment has to spend an enor­mous amount of tax­pay­ers’ money, es­ti­mated at 5 tril­lion yuan ($806 bil­lion) in the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15) ac­cord­ing to China’s min­istry of en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion, to tackle the en­vi­ron­ment chal­lenge, and the 1.4 bil­lion Chi­nese peo­ple are bear­ing the con­se­quences of liv­ing in a de­te­ri­o­rat­ing en­vi­ron­ment.

No US or oth­erWestern politi­cian, not even Obama or Kerry, have talked about the sac­ri­fice China and other de­vel­op­ing na­tions have made forWestern con­sumers or how much guiltWestern con­sumers should bear. In­stead we have heard a lot about how their multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions should turn the en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ters in de­vel­op­ing na­tions into lucrative busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties.

There have been oc­ca­sional re­ports in the US me­dia that pol­lu­tion from China has gone across the Pacific Ocean to reach the US west coast, with­out not­ing that this was ac­tu­ally just a tiny part of the car­bon foot­print the US has in China.

How­ever, blam­ing oth­ers won’t solve China’s en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis. The most pop­u­lous na­tion on the planet has to fun­da­men­tally change its “pol­lute first and treat later” men­tal­ity and not to re­peat the blun­der com­mit­ted by manyWestern coun­tries decades ago.

China needs to draft tougher and higher-stan­dard en­vi­ron­men­tal laws and im­ple­ment them earnestly, so the colos­sal mis­takes of the past decades won’t be­come worse. In fact, we have seen many de­vel­op­ing na­tions, whether in Africa or Latin Amer­ica, are learn­ing from China’s bit­ter en­vi­ron­men­tal lessons in their mod­ern­iza­tion drive.

That said, it is hypocrisy for the US and oth­erWestern lead­ers to as­sume the moral high ground and call China a free rider when they them­selves prey on de­vel­op­ing na­tions on var­i­ous fronts. The au­thor, based in­Wash­ing­ton, is deputy ed­i­tor of China Daily USA. chen­wei­hua@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

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