Climate Politics: Global Corporations Continue Outsourcing Pollution To China

It is much easier to make a mess of another country than it is your own. For years, China has been the world’s manufacturing hub, and happily so. To crank out iPhones and Nike shoes, GE lightbulbs, and Ralph Lauren bath towels, they need electricity. Most of it comes from coal. The U.S. and Europe can say that they are lowering their carbon footprints, but are they really? Not if their main brands are all manufacturing everything they sell at home in China.

China’s emissions fell approximately 3% in the first half of 2020 due to pandemic lockdowns. Everyone marveled at the satellite imagery of just how clean China’s air had become. But by the second half of the year, as China was emerging from its restrictions, and the U.S. and Europe went into increasingly harsher lockdown mode, China made our Lysol wipes and our face masks, keeping the lights on at mainland China factories.

China’s C02 emissions rose more than 4% in the second half of the year. In total across 2020, CO2 emissions in China rose by 1.5% compared with 2019, based on analysis of China’s annual statistical communique.

The annual increase of just 1.5% does continue a recent downward trend in China’s emissions growth, but the surge in the second half of the year points in a different direction, according to Carbon Brief, a UK based company that analyzes climate change-related data and publishes it on their website.

Most of China’s electricity is generated by coal.

The annual increase in China’s coal consumption rose just 0.6% in 2020 compared to growth of 1% in 2018 and 2019. But this hides a rapid uptick in coal demand as 2020 came to a close and China was, once again, the only factory operator making numerous items in high demand along the global supply chain.

Most of the coal demand came from steel production (coal-fired electricity demand rose 12.6%) and cement (up 8.4%).

In its recent Five Year Plan, China policymakers said they will reduce coal and hit peak emissions growth by 2030.

In the meantime, China was the only G20 nation to see a significant jump in coal-fired generation, according to Ember, a London-based energy and climate research group quoted in Reuters this weekend.

China’s coal-fired generation rose by 1.7% or 77 terawatt-hours, enough to bring its share of global coal power to 53%, up from 44% in 2015, the report showed.

Over the last several months of the new Biden administration, climate policy has been made priority item No. 1. And while the U.S. is also an importer of climate-related negatives, mainly food imports from countries like Brazil, we believe that a more local approach to economics is less harmful for the environment overall.

When it comes to China policy, Washington should consider carbon footprints of countries like China in an effort to persuade companies – who all talk a good game on environmental stewardship – into redirecting some of their supply chains. Some might argue that we would be polluting more here as a result. But that is only partially true. Products made from steel in China pollute much more than products made from steel in the U.S.

If the White House believes we are facing a climate emergency, then the Biden administration will have to work overtime to explain why outsourcing pollution to China, and elsewhere, is a good idea when we can do it here with a smaller carbon footprint.

China generated 53% of the world’s total coal-fired power in 2020, 9 percentage points more than it did in 2015, according to Ember.


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