When you type the word “China” into the Google search engine, the second suggestion that appears is “China air pollution,” and the images that pop up are filled with face masks, haze and desolation. The West has consistently criticized China for its detrimental impact on the environment, but surely there is more to the story than China being the big, bad polluter that destroys our planet’s environment.
In the news, we are constantly bombarded by images of pollution and waste in China, condemning both the leaders and the people of the country for the harm they cause to the environment. While China does contribute a significant amount to the environmental harms that our world is facing, it cannot be considered the sole perpetrator. China does contribute the most CO2 emissions overall, but its emissions per capita are nowhere close to that of the United States.
According to a report by the European Commission, China produces 7.7 metric tons of CO2 per capita, whereas the United states produces 16.1—more than double China (EDGAR, “CO2 time series 1990-2015 per capita for world countries,” 10.30.2017). Moreover, the nation that produces the most waste in the world is the United States, which generates 4.4 pounds of municipal solid waste per capita every day (EPA, “Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States,” 2012).
In order to try and combat the pollution that it is producing, China has implemented policies to reduce environmental impact—the Chinese government has declared a “war on pollution.” The government has primarily focused on reducing coal usage and has taken steps toward dismantling coal-fired power plants in order to reduce overall emission that contribute to smog and air pollution. It has also transformed its Ministry for Environmental Protection into a Ministry of Ecology and Environment; this new ministry has broader and clearer goals than the previous system, wherein environmental policies were scattered between different departments (World Economic Forum, “Here’s how China is going green,” 04.26.2018).
The Chinese government has also enforced more stringent regulations by implementing an environmental tax, which targets enterprises and public institutions that discharge air and water pollutants into the environment in order to finance a transition into a greener economy (Xinhua, “China starts collecting environment tax,” 01.01.2018). Finally, the country is using its technology giants, such as conglomerates Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent, in order to accelerate the transition to a more environmentally friendly China.
For example, Ant Financial, a banking subsidiary of Alibaba, aims to use technology to advance environmental finance; millions of users have signed up for an app called Ant Forest, which transforms carbon footprint tracking into a game-like experience (World Economic Forum, “Here’s how China is going green,” 04.26.2018). Overall, China is definitely making an effort to rectify its environmental situation, a fact which Western media often underreports.
Although it is not necessarily the biggest contributor per capita and does make some positive environmental efforts, China does make a significant negative impact on the environment. As China is a country that focuses on manufacturing goods, it is important to learn from where the demand for such goods comes and how these origins contribute to China’s pollution problem.
A study investigating the way in which consumer demand in the United States and Western Europe contributes to air pollution in developing countries has shown that demands from these countries for manufactured goods have indirectly contributed to tens of thousands of pollution-correlated deaths.
Chinese emissions have been linked to over 64,800 premature deaths in other regions of the world, including more than 3,000 deaths in the United States and Western Europe. However, this is overshadowed by the fact that 108,600 premature deaths in China were linked to goods and services consumed in the United States and in Western Europe (The Guardian, “Thousands of pollution deaths worldwide linked to western consumers – study,” 03.29.2017).
While the West may be eager to criticize China for the pollution that it creates, the West must stop and question why so much pollution is created in the first place and the extent to which we as consumers are responsible for our indirect environmental footprint.
Unlike the United States and most of Western Europe, China is still a developing country according to the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook Database (International Monetary Fund, “World Economic Outlook,” 10.2017), which means that it has a less developed industrial base and lower human development index in comparison to other countries. Though this may imply that China has fewer capabilities and less knowledge when it comes to creating environmentally friendly solutions, China’s current policies show that it is attempting to reduce its environmental footprint.
Despite China’s current role as a global economic player, its growth is relatively recent, which may be impacting the country’s attitude toward its economy, leading to the country’s tendency to favor the economy over environmental costs at times.
During The Great Leap Forward (1958-1962), China experienced tens of millions of deaths, as well as poverty and a rapidly shrinking economy. On the other side of the world, the United States experienced great economic growth with a boom in the aerospace industry, leading to an increase in employment and new technologies that improved industrial and agricultural sectors. In the 15 years after World War II, America’s foreign investment increased 1000 percent (Bernard Bailyn, “The Great Republic: A History of the American People,” 1985). It wasn’t even until late 1978, a mere 40 years ago, that China was able to break away from its previous Soviet-style central economy in order to become a more market-oriented economy, similar to that of already developed countries.
Therefore, for a country like China, whose economy is so dependent on exporting cheap, manufactured goods, the negative economic impacts may be considered before improving environmental standards. This does not seem like such an absurd solution considering the fact that there are many people alive in China now who can remember times of dire poverty and starvation. It would be no wonder if they did not want themselves or their country to be in the same position again.
In an increasingly global world, every nation and every individual has the responsibility to take care of the environment around them. It is important to remember that there is no sole perpetrator of this international issue, and as a result, we must recognise how we contribute to global pollution and how it affects us. Thus, rather than trying to blame and criticize one nation, we should, as a collective, recognise and attempt to rectify our own patterns and behaviors that contribute to the environmental crisis.