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Rich Chinese Provinces 'Outsource' Pollution to Poor Ones

The sun sets behind commercial buildings shrouded in haze in Shanghai

Photograph by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

The sun sets behind commercial buildings shrouded in haze in Shanghai

A flurry of citizen-led protests against polluting (or proposed) chemical factories in Chinese cities has recently made headlines. And for good reason, as hundreds of peaceful marchers parading in front of government buildings and waving hand-made signs (such as “We Want to Survive” and “Say No to PX,” a hazardous chemical) isn’t something you see every day in authoritarian China.

In recent years, such environmental demonstrations have erupted in the prosperous coastal cities of Xiamen, Dalian, Ningbo, and the southern city of Kunming. Middle-class citizens, wielding smartphones and sharing information about pollutants via social media, have organized the protests. When developers’ plans have been put on hold—as happened last month in Kunming—popular Chinese and Western media have declared a victory for nascent people power in China.

But what happens next? Chances are that factory plans won’t fizzle entirely, but rather that construction will move to another location—usually in a poorer province, with a less informed and media-savvy local population.

In a paper published in the June 10 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (pdf), researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, University of Maryland, and University of Cambridge mapped the flow of goods, money, and interprovincial emissions to document what they call the “outsourcing” of pollution “within China.” Their study focused in particular on CO2 emissions, which spew from the same coal-fired power plants and other factories responsible for smog-causing domestic pollution.

As the researchers discovered, “the most affluent cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin, and provinces such as Guangdong and Zhejiang, outsource more than 50% of the emissions related to the products they consume” to provinces in the central and western hinterlands. In short, eastern urbanites enjoy the fruits of energy, steel, cement, and other goods produced in China’s less-developed regions. (To be sure, Western consumers also benefit from goods produced in China, at an even greater distance from the pollution.)

“Although China is often seen as a homogeneous entity, it is a vast country with substantial regional variation in physical geography, economic development, infrastructure, population density, demographics, and lifestyles” the researchers wrote. One example: The carbon footprint of residents of Shanghai, Beijing, and Tianjin, three wealthy eastern cities, is four times higher than that of residents of Guangxi, Yunnan, and Guizhou, three poor southwestern provinces.

Larson is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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