How Responsible Are Americans for China’s Pollution Problem?

A ChinaFile Conversation

David Vance Wagner: China’s latest “airpocalypse” has again sent air pollution in Beijing soaring to hazardous levels for days straight. Though the Chinese government has made admirable progress recently at confronting the long-term air pollution crisis, it will be years before Beijing’s air reaches acceptable quality. In the meantime, official explanations for the severe smog—large amounts of emissions, poor air dispersion—seem comically inadequate, leaving a frustrated public hungry for more innovative explanations. The latest meme: could the United States be partially to blame for China’s pollution woes?

A couple of arguments support the idea that the U.S. bears some indirect responsibility for China’s air pollution. An excellent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in January found that a small but significant amount of air pollutant emissions in China can be attributed to the production of goods later exported to the U.S. A second, more tenuous argument for U.S. responsibility highlights environmentally unfriendly trends—Beijing’s rapid motorization comes to mind—caused by Chinese middle class consumers chasing the “American dream.”

However, arguments suggesting U.S. fault for air pollution in China worry me for a few reasons. First, the blame game is diplomatically dangerous, antithetical to the idea of the U.S. and China as constructive global partners. Second, regulatory actions implied by the U.S.’ acceptance of responsibility for Chinese air pollution are uncertain and legally questionable (will the U.S. impose an “embedded pollution tax” at the border? Try to set air quality regulations applicable to Chinese factories producing goods for the U.S.?). Third, I worry that such arguments distract attention from the fundamental, direct causes of China’s air pollution—an economy that grew too fast and too dirty for a capacity-constrained government to keep up with—and solutions—deep, enforceable emission cuts from industrial, power, and mobile sources.

Americans need not accept “responsibility” for China’s air pollution, but this is not an argument against U.S. environmental engagement with China. U.S. technical and regulatory assistance to China to solve the air pollution crisis is justifiable for multiple reasons that have little to do with who is to blame for what. Diplomatically, constructive U.S.-China environmental cooperation is a critical bilateral success story. Economically, stronger environmental regulations in China are a potential boon to U.S. companies. Even direct self-interest: Chinese transpacific air pollution negatively affects air quality in the western U.S. (an additional conclusion of the aforementioned PNAS paper).

The U.S.’ experience over the past decades—growing the GDP while dramatically reducing air pollutant emissions—is exactly what China needs right now, and I have been delighted to watch numerous U.S.-China cooperative air quality improvement projects unfold at the national and sub-national levels over the years. Let’s not jeopardize this constructive collaboration by pointing fingers and assigning blame.


This semester at UCLA I am teaching torts—the law governing liability for harms done to others—so my mind has been on issues of causation. On the basic issue of whether we Americans are a cause of a significant portion of China's pollution, the answer is clearly YES. The study Vance cites finds that, in 2006, China’s production of goods for export caused 36% of the nation’s sulfur dioxide emissions, 27% of the nitrogen dioxide, and 22% of its carbon monoxide. Another study found that 33% of China’s carbon dioxide emissions were related to production of exports. In other words, our demand for products leads to a certain amount of pollution in China. These exports are not all to the U.S., but a significant portion of them are. Without our demand for products from China, pollution would probably be less intense.

However, in torts there also has to be something called proximate cause for there to be legal responsibility. Before your eyes fully glaze over, this simply means that we don't hold actors legally responsible for some harms they caused where someone else was more responsible, the connection between the actor and the ultimate harm was too attenuated, and so on. In other words, in those instances, for some reason we think it would be unfair to hold the actor responsible, even though he was in a technical sense a cause of the harm.

Putting legal responsibility aside for now, the question for me is—given that U.S. consumption is the cause of a certain percentage of China’s pollution, do we think that connection is too attenuated to hold the U.S. responsible to some extent (at least in a moral sense)? I think not. Our consumption in a fairly direct way is contributing to severe pollution in China, with all of the negative consequences that brings. And given persistent shortcomings of Chinese regulation, U.S.—side actors are in some cases in a better position to do something about Chinese pollution associated with exports.

To be more specific, I think raising the question of U.S.- and developed world- responsibility for Chinese pollution has a few benefits. For one, it highlights an important lever for reducing pollution in China: U.S. consumer demand and changing the behavior of the major U.S. companies that source out of (and therefore pollute in) China. For example, local Chinese factories will often be much more attentive to the demands of Wal-Mart (e.g., reduce pollution or you lose your contract) than local regulators. The Chinese environmentalist Ma Jun and my friends at the Natural Resources Defense Council are doing terrific work in this area to encourage American companies to be more attentive to the pollution their suppliers create in China.

It also should lead us to moderate the "soupçon of 'airenfreude'" (to use Evan Osnos' term) with which outsiders often view China's air pollution problems. If instead we acknowledge that we are all in this together, it could help facilitate the types of international cooperation that Vance mentions.

I agree that the primary responsibility for environmental enforcement falls to China. But if U.S. consumers, the private sector, our government, took more responsibility and could help China to reduce upwards of one-third of its pollution, wouldn't that be a thing worth pursuing?


I very much appreciate the eloquent commentary of David Vance Wagner and Alex Wang. Let me be somewhat less elegant. Beijing, alone, has elected to underfund and understaff its environmental protection effort for decades. Beijing, alone, dismantled its State Environmental Protection Commission, which had the power to coordinate environmental policy among various agencies. Beijing, alone, has put in place a political system that devalues transparency, the rule of law, and official accountability—the underpinnings of any effective environmental protection system. Beijing, alone, has constrained the development of civil society, an essential element of virtually all countries with strong environmental protection. Beijing, alone, has promoted an urban design and culture in which people use four times the energy and three times the water as Chinese in rural areas. And Beijing, alone, has just finished formulating an environmental strategy to deal with its urban air pollution that relies in part on shipping polluting industry and energy to the western part of the country so it can pay the price for the excesses of coastal China. If American companies are not adhering to China’s environmental protection laws, haul them into court and fine them. If China doesn’t want to produce goods for export in a manner that pollutes the country, shut down the factories that do so and western consumers will pay the price at the checkout stand. The United States, the European Union, Japan, and Canada, among many other countries, have long been deeply involved in assisting China’s environmental protection effort. The question is not what more the outside world needs to do but what Beijing is prepared to do.

Blaming others for pollution at home is not going to clean up China’s environment, nor, I suspect, will it convince an increasingly disillusioned Chinese public that the responsibility for their child’s environmentally induced asthma, or their uncle’s cancer, lies in New York rather than Beijing. I can see the temptation, for a government that left it too late to take the environmental arguments against its “pollute first, clean up later” production model seriously, and now finds itself locked into a pollution track that is very difficult to escape from, with a public that is increasingly angry at the poisoning of their air, soil, water and food, with soaring cancer rates and high rates of premature death from heart and lung diseases. It is not the first time that China’s government has been confronted with the unpalatable political fact that if you have all the power, you also get all the blame.

Cleaning up is harder—and more expensive—than avoiding pollution in the first place. For 30 years, China’s industry, including the energy sector, has been dumping the costs of production, in the form of pollution, on the Chinese public in order to maximize its profits, or undercut its competitors to expand its markets. This has made millionaires of many industrialists and crony officials, and sent hundreds of thousands of less fortunate citizens to premature deaths from cancers and other environmentally induced diseases.

That does not mean that the consumer has no responsibility. A U.S. consumer—or a European, Indian or Russian one—who may be the end-user of a Chinese-made product, has a moral responsibility to consider the environmental costs of his or her consumption. That is not the same as being directly responsible for the pollution in the production process, since the degree of pollution that occurs will depend on the standards applied. But it is true that U.S. multinationals, amongst others, have played their part in driving down the price, and the cost of manufacture is a small part of the purchase price, compared to the share that is given to advertising and promotion. But the consumer has little control over that. He or she does have an ethical duty to be as well informed and as discriminatory as possible, which might involve, for instance, considering whether a $2.00 t-shirt is an ethical purchase, since it is clear from the price that the workers who produce it are badly paid and ill-protected. It might also involve resisting the temptation to upgrade one’s phone as frequently as fashion dictates.

The consumer should be willing to pay an end price that reflects the costs of responsible production—and disposal—of the object, and that may mean buying less. But the consumer does not control the conditions in the supply chain. China is a sovereign country, and one that has failed to apply its own anti-pollution laws, one of the factors that has allowed it to undercut more responsible production with a “China price” that takes no account of the externalities. This has resulted in an environmental mess that was made in China, and only China can fix it. Perhaps it is more accurate to see it as conspiracy between a niggardly consumer and greedy producer, to the detriment of both.

There is certainly some truth in the observation that chasing the American dream has led China down some unfortunate paths, but surely we choose whom we wish to emulate, and it is childish to blame others for our choice. The consequences of some of China’s choices have not been good: China has been chasing the wrong kind of cities for nearly 50 years, for instance, and has ended up with multiple subtopian versions of Los Angeles—a model that was outdated by 1960. A city for the 21st century looks more like Copenhagen and would have served China far better.

Many Chinese still equate good living with American living, without stopping to reflect that it is not possible for everyone on the planet to live as U.S. consumers do: there are simply not enough resources. That is certainly a China-U.S. conversation that is worth having, and one that would be good for everybody. Perhaps China can persuade the United States of the virtues of consuming less, even as China works out how to live better while producing less, to a higher value, and in a more sustainable manner.

I couldn’t agree more with Isabel that China has indeed adopted a wrong-headed path to urbanization, mass-producing LAs instead of New Yorks—not that NYC is the best model. A third of China’s pollution may come from, or be linked to, U.S. consumerism. But I wonder whether there’s a practical way to factor in an environmental cost that would be acceptable to a majority of consumers living in America and the West without making iPhones and the like out of our reach. Because China gets a few cents on the dollar from such fancy products and adding a few bucks to the retail price probably wouldn't hurt American wallets that much, I suspect such a tax is doable. At least it wouldn’t stop me from buying an iPhone 7. Yes, we would need more people like Ma Jun out there to get this kind of mechanism implemented, but I would love to see it happen.

For now, at least, I haven’t sensed an outcry from either the Chinese government or the Chinese public about the export-embedded environmental consequence. Some are trying to prod the government to act more quickly to protect their own and their children's health.

I also have some confidence in the Chinese government that this time around, it may manage to clean up the air more efficiently than its counterparts in the West did before. Yes, it’s a hell of a task, but if the government is damn serious, then it will act fast. However, if it just ends up relocating all the dirty industries in Hebei and Shandong inland to Ningxia and Gansu then it will be another sad story. Nowadays, with social media so widespread and pollution so bad, have more than enough pictures to prove it. I have no doubt that Chinese officials are just as fed up as much as the Chinese public. This is another test for the Chinese government to show that it is a can-do government. If air pollution doesn’t begin to go away, it will continue to be the butt of popular jokes circulating via social media, such as this one: China Central Television news anchor Rui Chenggang interviews outgoing U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke, asking: “China was your home country, don’t you want to leave with some home soil?”

Locke: “Of course. I’ve got a whole lungful.”

Finger pointing in the case of air pollution is counter-productive purely from scientific considerations. We should also not forget, when we are pointing an accusing finger at someone, three fingers are pointing our way. Air pollution generated from China travels to the U.S. West coast within a week and likewise air pollution from the U.S.A. travels to Europe in a matter of days, and European pollution blows downwind to nations beyond. We are all in this together. We have to work together to solve this problem and learn from each other’s mistakes and successes.

California is a shining example as a success story. In the 1940s and 1950s California had the dirtiest skies in the world. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) was formed in the 1960s to help solve the problem. Ambient levels of black carbon particles decreased by 90% in Californian cities. Black carbon is the dominant component of fine particulate pollution from diesel vehicles. In addition, emissions of air pollutants such as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides declined by 75% to 90%. This massive clean-up happened in the last four decades when the state’s population increased by a factor of two, the miles traveled increased by a factor of three and diesel consumption increased by a factor of three-to-four. The important lesson to be learned is that cleaning up the air does not necessarily deter development. In fact, it might have made the region more attractive for growth. The reduction in black carbon from polluting diesel vehicles not only helped save lives but also helped immensely with mitigation of climate change, since black carbon is a major contributor to global warming. A ton of black carbon from diesel vehicles has the same climate warming effects as 2,000 tons of Carbon Dioxide, the dominant greenhouse gas.

Beijing and Delhi do not have to compete for the dubious title of the world’s worst polluted city. They can use the California model and collaborate with CARB to make the magic happen in their cities. Thanks to the initiatives by California’s Governor Jerry brown, state-to-state collaboration between China and California has been initiated. I am also delighted to report that World Bank has sponsored a India-California Air Pollution Mitigation Program (ICAMP) led by CARB, The Energy Resources Institute at New Delhi, India and the University of California at San Diego. ICAMP brought in experts from both California and three states of India to develop an action plan. The first meeting in Oakland was inaugurated by Governor Jerry Brown and the second meeting held in New Delhi, was inaugurated by Dr. R.K. Pachauri, Chairman of United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The group’s action plan for drastically reducing pollution from the transportation sector will be submitted to the Government of India by May 2014.