The Coal Monster: Pollution Forces Chinese Leaders to Act

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For years, citizens in China's south have pushed to be placed on equal footing with those in the north. But the shock of the current winter has weakened their arguments. How can they demand more energy consumption, say critics, when the strain on the environment is already almost unbearable today?

Global Blame

In recent weeks, Europeans and Americans have noted with horror how the Chinese are poisoning themselves. Don't the images from Beijing, they ask, reinforce the impression that China's leaders have made for years at international climate negotiations? An authoritarian country that walks over corpses for the sake of growth, and that arrogantly ignores the warnings coming from the West, where emissions have been declining for years?

The contradiction beneath this perception is obvious in Hong Kong, the outpost of the First World in China. The self-confident citizens of the former British crown colony have fought with their pro-Beijing leadership for years over air quality.

Kwong Sum-yin, 29, is sitting in the offices of the environmental organization Clean Air Network (CAN), under a humming air filter attached to the ceiling. She turns around her monitor and points out the most recent annual diagram of air-quality levels in the city. "Our numbers are miserable," she says. "The air in Hong Kong is three times as polluted as it is in New York, and twice as polluted as in London."

Many Hong Kong residents, says Gloria Chang of Greenpeace, are concerned about the clouds of pollution that blow over from the Pearl River Delta in China's heavily industrial Guangdong Province. This is understandable, she notes, but it is also questionable. "Since 1997, we have moved all of our heavy and textile industry to the mainland," she says. "It's obvious that we also bear some of the responsibility for the pollution from over there."

The position Western industrialized countries take toward China is similar to Hong Kong's attitudes about the Pearl River Delta. One of the reasons the carbon dioxide emissions of leading industrialized countries have declined in recent years is that a large share of polluting production has been outsourced elsewhere -- and much of it to China.

The size of this share is one of the most complex and controversial questions in climate economics. The answer isn't just important for China's government, but also for governments, producers and consumers in the United States and Europe.

A working paper from the University of Wollongong, in Australia, attracted attention in September. The authors estimate that more than a third of China's CO2 emissions in 2007 (the most recent year for which figures are available) could be attributed to exports. In their consumption-based model, the responsibility for each ton of carbon dioxide is shared by the country in which it is emitted and those countries in which the produced goods are consumed.

Glen Peters, of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research - Oslo (CICERO), believes this number is too high. He and an international team of authors estimate the contribution of exports to China's carbon dioxide emissions in 2007 at no more than 25 percent. And owing to growing domestic demand, that figure may have declined since.

However, the West also benefits from this domestic demand, including German companies. China has become the most important market for German automakers, with Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Porsche selling almost a million cars there in 2012.

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