Environment

American Corporations and Consumers Are Driving China's Air Pollution, Which Has Now Drifted to the U.S.

Globalization has an environmental and public health blowback: drifting smog.

Photo Credit: Hung Chung Chih/Shutterstock

A recent study of air pollution in the western United States made a startling finding: despite a 50 percent drop over the past 25 years in U.S. emissions of smog-producing chemicals like nitrogen oxides (NOx), smog actually increased during that period in rural western states, even in such pristine environments as Yellowstone National Park.

Most of this increase, according to the researchers, was traced to the "influx of pollution from Asian countries, including China, North and South Korea, Japan, India and other South Asian countries.” Over the same period that NOx emissions declined in the U.S., they tripled in Asia as a whole. In media reports of the study, China and India are described as the "worst offenders" of this fugitive "Asian pollution."

Left only with these findings, a reasonable conclusion would be that the U.S. has become more environmentally enlightened in recent decades, while Asia—particularly "developing" Asia—is a veritable eco-reprobate, sacrificing not only its own but global airsheds to choking pollution. In explaining why the U.S. should exit the Paris Climate Accord, President Trump's anti-environmental EPA director, Scott Pruitt, expressed this view, saying that China and India "are polluting far more than we are."

The missing bit

A similar study of global air pollution drift in 2014, focusing on China and the U.S., made comparable findings, but included an important factor missing from the more recent study: production for export. Among other things, the researchers of the older study asked how much of the Chinese air pollution drifting to the western U.S. was occasioned specifically in the production of exports for world markets (including the top destination for Chinese manufactures: the United States)

The answer? In 2006, up to 24 percent of sulfate concentrations over the western United States were generated in the Chinese production of goods for export to the U.S. Applying these findings to the more recent study, it's likely that a significant percentage of the Asian nitrogen oxides now choking the U.S. West were also emitted in the production of goods destined for American markets.

In other words, it's meaningless to speak of "Asian pollution" in this context. Though the pollution was emitted in Asia, it properly belongs to the country or countries on whose behalf and at whose behest it was produced. Even more accurately, the pollution finally belongs to the transnational corporations (TNCs) who are the real drivers and beneficiaries not only of offshoring, but also of insatiable consumerism through marketing and obsolescence.

Profit vs. Planet

Economic globalization has enabled the manic scouring of the world by TNCs for the most "liberal" (read: unregulated) environments in which to locate production facilities – the places where expenses can be minimized and profits maximized. Since the biggest drags on corporate profiteering come from taxes, environmental regulations and decent labor protections and wages, the global relocations of TNCs have largely been towards countries where those costs are lowest, or absent altogether.

By increasing their economic power, globalization has also given TNCs the ability to capture governments, which then collude in further reshaping of the world through 'free' trade treaties, supra-national institutions like the IMF, WTO and World Bank, and subsidies and handouts to attract and retain big business.

This entire system of globalization, production and pollution offshoring is driven by the profit-maximization logic governing transnational corporations, greased along by an ever-growing number of bilateral and global free trade treaties. As economist Martin Hart-Landsberg writes:

Beginning in the late 1980s large multinational corporations, including those headquartered in the U.S., began a concerted effort to reverse declining profits by establishing cross-border production networks (or global value chains). This process knitted together highly segmented economic processes across national borders in ways that allowed these corporations to lower their labor costs as well as reduce their tax and regulatory obligations. Their globalization strategy succeeded; corporate profits soared. It is also no longer helpful to think about international trade in simple nation-state terms.

Dominating China's exports: U.S. multinationals

China—having colluded with global capital in turning itself into, as anthropologist David Harvey writes in his book "A Brief History of Neoliberalism," the "factory of the world"—is bearing the lion's share of globalization's brunt. But at least China is getting rich as a result, right? Certainly, there is an emerging wealthy (and super-wealthy) class within China that is profiting from globalization, but it represents a minuscule fraction of the overall population. The mass of the workers who make up China's labor and "bad-labor" workforce (the latter referring to vulnerable, health-damaging, gender unequal, child and forced labor) are not benefiting from the country's conversion into a TNC workshop: Labor's share of China's GDP has been steadily falling since the late 1990s. For a high-end electronic product like the iPhone, less than 2 percent (about $10) of the sales price goes to Chinese workers involved in its production.

So who is driving China's export-oriented boom? "It is not Chinese state enterprises, or even Chinese private enterprises, that are driving China's exports to the U.S., Hart-Landsberg writes. "Rather it is foreign multinationals, many of which are headquartered in the U.S., including Apple, Dell, and Walmart." By 2013, he notes, foreign-owned TNCs were responsible for 47 percent of all Chinese exports (and over 80 percent of high-tech exports) compared to a mere 11 percent by Chinese state-owned enterprises. U.S.-based TNCs dominate this control and ownership of exports made in China.

The division of profits from Chinese manufactures is also heavily skewed in favor of foreign corporations. For telecommunications equipment, China produced 38 percent of world exports in 2013, but their share of the profits generated by the sale of those products was just 6 percent, while U.S. firms captured 59 percent. Similar imbalances obtain in the case of textiles, where U.S. firms commandeered 46 percent of the profit share.

From the production, sale and transport of globally-traded commodities, to the shipping of the resulting waste back to China, and now to the profitable 'adaptation' to the ghastly air pollution, TNCs are the main drivers and beneficiaries of this system. In other words, Chinese production and exports are dominated by U.S. and other foreign corporations, and—like the pollution drifting across the globe—are not really "Chinese" at all.

This "Asian pollution" may have an even deeper connection to the American west over which it is now drifting. The world’s largest surface mines are the Black Thunder mines, in the Powder River Basin straddling the Wyoming/Montana border. The mine's owner and operator, Arch Coal, exports sizable amounts of this government-owned coal to places like China, where it is burned to power the factories that produce American consumer goods.

Reflecting TNC's global power: Americans' big eco-footprint

It has been widely noted that American consumers have the largest ecological footprint in the world. While not completely absolving individuals—especially those on the upper rungs of the socio-economic ladder—for perpetuating this wasteful system, it can be argued that those large ecological footprints are not entirely their own. The combined effects of aggressive marketing, advertising, and planned product obsolescence mean that the American consumer's oversized footprint is largely a consequence and reflection of the global power of TNCs. In that sense, it is perhaps more accurate to speak of corporate ecological footprints rather than the footprints of nations or individuals.

Globalization has meant the distancing of cause and effect, source and sink, so that the pollution and human exploitation caused in the production and transport of goods has remained invisible and opaque to consumers. As Wendell Berry says, "The global economy institutionalizes a global ignorance, in which producers and consumers cannot know or care about one another, and in which the histories of all products will be lost."

Until now, it seems, corporations' pollution offshoring was easy enough for Northern policymakers to comfortably ignore; it was offshored, after all. Of course, global warming already showed that simply exporting polluting production to the global South was meaningless as far as the Earth's atmosphere and climate were concerned. But local air quality was seen as something distinct, so that the smoggy horrors of industrializing China or India were, for places like North America, still at a "safe" distance. No more. Now, in addition to the products that magically appear on Western store shelves absolutely shorn of history and provenance, much of the hitherto distant pollution emitted in their production has also arrived. It has come home to roost, as globalization's blowback.

An earlier version of this article was originally published on the Economics of Happiness Blog. Read the original.

Alex Jensen is project coordinator at Local Futures. He has worked in the U.S. and India, where he co-ordinated Local Futures' Ladakh Project from 2004-2015. He was previously an associate of the Sambhaavnaa Institute of Public Policy and Politics in Himachal Pradesh, India.

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