Getting There From Here (1)

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The on and off of Beijing air pollution.
For an interactive look at what major cities would look like with the level of pollution that Beijing experienced during the 2012-13 winter, go to the source of this image: Marketplace.org

China’s cabinet recently released the outline of a strategy to deal with its ‘airpocalypse’, the devastating air pollution levels in many of its major cities. The main goal is to reduce industrial emissions by 30% by the end of 2017.

In a ten-point plan, the State Council proposes making sure that construction projects pass environmental evaluations before permission to build is granted; emergency response plans for high-pollution periods (including traffic reduction and industry emission limits); stricter controls on the expansion of heavily polluting industries. The industries set to face special emission limits include iron and steel, cement, and petrochemicals.

While it’s a tremendous step forward to have the government of China – currently the world’s foremost source of greenhouse gas emissions – acknowledge the urgent need for a strategy in emissions reduction, it’s also a little hard to see how that will dovetail with massive economic expansion based in large part upon the very industries which are set to face strict emissions limits or any kind of business-as-usual approach.

One way might be the outsourcing of emissions within China, i.e. locating some industries to less populous provinces to reduce pollution in the larger cities. Carbon outsourcing accounts for 50-80% of emissions in Shanghai and Beijing.

A graphic showing how coastal provinces of China are outsourcing their greenhouse gas emissions by importing goods from less developed provinces, 2013.  Source: University of Maryland via The Guardian

A graphic showing how coastal provinces of China are outsourcing their greenhouse gas emissions by importing goods from less developed provinces, 2013.
Source: University of Maryland via The Guardian

For me, this isn’t really a solution so much as a delay and repositioning of the same problem – just because pollution isn’t on your front doorstep doesn’t mean it’s any less dangerous.

According to Steven Davis, the University of California professor at Irvine who led a study on emissions outsourcing in China, the country is taking a short-term solution that comes at the cost of genuine improvements through the modernization of the highly polluting coal-based industrial production still common in the provinces.

“The tragedy of this is that the easiest and cheapest cuts in emissions are in these provinces in the interior where the technologies are antiquated and with even slight improvements could be much, much cleaner,” Davis said. The net effect of the outsourcing is to make it far less likely China would reach its climate targets.

In this case, out of sight doesn’t equal out of mind.

More:

Guardian articleChina launches new measures to tackle air pollution by Jennifer Duggan

Guardian articleChina’s rich provinces outsource emissions to less developed areas by Suzanne Goldenberg

PNAS.org studyOutsourcing CO2 within China by Kuishuang Feng, Steven J. Davis, Laixiang Sun, Xin Li, Dabo Guan, Weidong Liu, Zhu Liu,Klaus Hubacek

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