China and Pollution: What You Can Do

18 08 2009
From: Current, 2009

From: Current, 2009

I know this probably isn’t News to anyone, but China is pretty bad when it comes to pollution. Often the argument goes like this:

  • China’s recent history of water pollution, air pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions is higher than anywhere in the world.

But then there is the counter argument:

  • North Americans along with Western Europeans have far higher greenhouse gas emission rates per capita, in fact the emissions per person in china are about a quarter of those of his or her United States counterpart.

And my counter argument?:

  • If China’s pollution is so high when their per capita rate is so low, that means there are a few very large, very powerful corporations, power plants, etc in the East that are allowed to pollute without consequence, or so it seems to me. We can’t punish the already struggling and impoverished general population of that country.

My personal argument isn’t based in fact so much as it is in observation and inference. We often hear about industrial catastrophe’s in China such as the recent lead poisoning of nearly all children in one village. We see the polluted haze that consumes Beijing daily (the olympics sure didn’t help thier image). We know that the country is very rapidly running it’s water resources dry and on top of that, it is said that a major water pollution incident occurs every other day. In effect, most of these problems are partly induced by us westerners who demand Chinese goods day in and day out, from irons to computer chips. It is within our capacity to change the way China manufacturers it’s products. We have the ability to demand a clean manufacturing process and the fair treatment of employees by only purchasing goods that meet our requirements. Wal Mart, of all places, is sort of doing this. They are developing an environmental rating system for all products on their shelves, and if their manufacturers don’t comply, they’ve threatened to drop them. The catch here, is that the system will only apply to packaging, which Wal Mart says it will reduce by a whopping 5%. This doesn’t mean much in and of itself, but it may hopefully spawn a new movement towards consumer knowledge of what they are purchasing. A rating system that expalins the approximate greenhouse gas emissions created by that product, the amount of recyclable material within it, the exact toxins that go into the manufacturing process, the amount of water used. If the west were to make purchases based on this type of data and not solely price, then maybe we could see a great change in Chinese manufacturers?

For now, you can look desparately for North American made products (occassionaly you can still find some clothing, shoes, office products, etc.), and you can improve your knowledge of the manufacturing industry in China. Two relatively mainstream documentaries are worth watching: WalMart: The High Cost of Low Prices, and Manufactured Landscapes. You can also support Human Rights Watch or support any number of environmental organizations, many of which will be involved with China in some way.

We can’t blame the country of China for the environmental problems of the world. We in the west have certainly been polluting for a longer period of time. Consider our industrial revolution was over 100 years ago, China’s has happened within the past 20 years. However, they are not going to change all by themselves. A quote from Wang Yongli, a water engineer in Shijiazhuang says, “We have a water shortage, but we have to develop…And development is going to be put first…In Israel [where there are also extreme water shortages], people regard water as more important than life itself. In Shijianzhuang, it’s not that way. People are focused on the economy.” If we as consumers show that we want environmental and social justice through our purchases by buying locally as much as possible, maybe the Chinese will then see the need to meet western regulations on both the environment as well as human rights. This is as much our problem as it is theirs. Don’t blame China until you stop supporting their dirty industries with your wallet and demand change.

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5 responses

19 08 2009
Sven

Great piece, Tyler. I agree that we have to move past the “who is polluting more” stage. Of course, it’s rationally sound to say that the US and Western nations have caused much of the CO2 emissions throughout history, and thus should bear a larger share of the burden. However, we are at a point where pointing fingers doesn’t get us anywhere anymore. Mother Earth doesn’t care who is at fault. We’re literally all sitting in the same boat. Doesn’t matter where the carbon reductions are happening, we need them all. I think China is realizing this, too that it’s not in their own interest to pretend that this is only the U.S.’s problem. If we can somehow manage to avert the worst by all pulling together here, then we should extend our deepest gratitude to China for being a good sport.

19 08 2009
Tyler Bradt

Thanks Sven

20 08 2009
steve

It seems nearly impossible to find products that are actually made in America. I read today that the average wage for a worker in China is about $.50 an hour. (that may or may not be completely accurate) It’s a shame that unions, and even government regulations along with various taxes imposed on our own manufacturers have driven them to ‘out sourcing’. It almost seems like we’re stuck with supporting foreign manufacturers; because I can tell you, the people running Walmart, and all the others that contract the cheap labor aren’t going to turn it loose.

20 08 2009
RR

Might the cause of the per capita population statistic be due to the fact China has over 1 billion people – 3 times that of the US! That’s a lot of people to spread out the pollution over…

Why don’t you compare those living in the cities in China vs the US – i.e. developed vs. developed. By using ALL of China you’re essentially comparing apples to oranges as a majority of them still live rurally.

Just something to think about
RR

30 08 2009
corporate

I suspect you’ll find state operated and state approved corporations doing much of the polluting in China. I also suspect you’ll find large foreign corporations do their fair share of polluting, but many are more European or North American in running their Chinese plants and so would be leaders in Chinese pollution reduction. There are thousands of enterprises in China that are Chinese owned and operated and I suspect polluting as badly or worse than the foreign plants. Large multi-nationals have standard operating procedures that they’ll apply across their manufacturing plants wherever they are. They’ll do this as much for efficiency and cost reduction as for their world wide environmental image, upon which, they can’t afford to tarnish (more than it is). Having said that, there are likely many Chinese owned plants operating with modern, clean facilities, aimed at supplying western customers that need to show an environmental image that is above the fray. Example: suppliers to MacDonald’s Restaurants in China meet MacDonald’s standards, not Chinese standards.

As for Wal Mart, their packaging reduction initiative will have a major impact on product packaging as it grows in scale. Their competitors will follow and Wal Mart suppliers will not only reduce packaging on what they supply to Wal Mart, but also on goods supplied to other customers, partly out of cost reduction benefits and partly out of the goodwill gained in claiming they are greener.

The Chinese government couldn’t care less about its population in my opinion. They are at the center of pollution issues and as long as they bung up the market, the pollution problem in China will be difficult to eliminate. Bribes and graft are a way of life in that market.

RR raises a good point in making comparisons about markets. China is really two countries. One developing rapidly into a modern economic powerhouse and the other remains a backwater.

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