Global Connections Edition
The U.S./China Media Brief seeks to assist media outlets and journalists to cover U.S.-China relations. We offer easily-accessible information materials ranging from online interviews to written articles on Sino-American issues.
Labor Article

America's Role and Responsibility

Why the United States Should Care/Impact on America

Global Warming and Pollution
As the larger emitter of greenhouse gases, China’s actions or lack thereof in reducing carbon emissions will greatly impact global warming. Indeed many observers think China is now ground zero for combating global warming. Chinese factory emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide fall as acid rain in Japan and Korea, while much of the particulate pollution over Los Angeles originates in China.[1]

Food and Product Safety
With the environment irrevocably tied to economics and trade, the safety of products and foodstuffs coming out of China has also become a concern to American consumers: in 2007 lead-tainted toys and contaminated pet food out of China made headlines around the world and sparked recalls and lawsuits in the U.S. The U.S. government has previously rejected seafood shipments from China that have been deemed to contain illegal veterinary drugs, which some Chinese farmers have used to keep their stocks alive in toxic waters, but which pose health threats to consumers.[2]

Potential Adverse Economic Impact for Americans
For American manufacturers with factories in China, rolling blackouts from insufficient and inefficient energy use can mean a decrease in productivity, while drought and the low levels of the Yangtze and other rivers will slow down cargo traffic from the interior and can delay goods getting to market; drought also reduces crops and livestock, potentially causing inflation in world grain prices.

Competing Strategic Interests
China’s demand for water, like its demand for oil, may well lead it to compete with the United States and other countries in the coming years for what may be increasingly scarce resources.

China as Market (and competitor) for Green Investment
At the same time, China’s environmental needs make it an excellent and potentially huge market for anyone who can provide more efficient and advanced technologies for both energy generation and pollution and waste management.[3] Already, China is leading in certain areas of sustainable development such as the use of solar energy, electronic bikes, and wind turbines. This last looks to be a lucrative area as wind provides more power than solar or biofuels. Many experts predict that China is poised to become the leader in green technology and investment in the next decade.

American Responsibility

American Demand for Cheap Goods
China argues that the rest of the world contributes to the degradation of China’s environment as factories that emit pollutants, some of which belong to or are subcontractors for multinational corporations, often make cheap goods for the U.S. and European markets. Indeed, America and the world’s seemingly insatiable demand for everything from seafood to cashmere, computers to industrial chemicals, all at the lowest cost possible, has engendered a symbiotic relationship between China, more than happy and able to oblige with its low-cost labor, and the rest of the world, but especially America. According to the U.K.-based Tyndall Centre, net exports from China accounted for 23% of its carbon dioxide emissions in 2004. What is typically not factored in in the cheap prices of goods is the cost to the environment and to human health in the manufacture and transportation of these goods.

China as Dumping Ground
China is increasingly becoming a dumping ground for Americans’ outdated and unwanted goods. For example, rather than work with Chinese manufacturers to build more environmentally friendly cars, some U.S. auto makers derive greater marginal profit from selling outdated and more polluting vehicle technology to China.[4]

E-Waste: America also exports much of its electronic waste (old TVs, iPods, computers), some of it hazardous, to China for recycling, partly because there are no facilities in the U.S. that fully recycle all e-waste components, and partly because EPA reports show that it is ten times cheaper to export e-waste than to process it in the U.S.[5] (China exports so much to the U.S. that tankers that would otherwise go back empty are now filled with e-waste). The United States is the only industrialized nation in the world that has not ratified the Basel Convention — an international treaty prohibiting the developed world from shipping hazardous waste to the developing world — making it still legal for the U.S. to export often hazardous e-waste (for example, computer monitors contain toxic substances like lead) to cities like Guiyu in southern China where residents often break down components by melting them over coal, thereby releasing toxic fumes from multiple sources that burn their lungs. Although the Chinese government banned the import of hazardous materials for recycling in 2000, e-waste recycling continues[6] as it supports economic development and there is a need for non-hazardous recycled products; residents tolerate it for the same reason and because of the uncertainty of the future and their need to get what they can now.

What the United States Should Do:

Clean Up Its Own House and Set an Example
Almost all environmental experts, whether American or Chinese, agree that the United States government needs to set a better environmental example or it will have no credibility in telling China how to behave with regard to its environment. Just as an example, the average fuel economy of new vehicles in China is expected to be around 36.7 miles per gallon in 2008,[7] whereas the U.S. only recently set a 35 miles-per-gallon standard to be reached by 2020.

On the international front, many critics believe that the American government’s policy of letting countries determine their own climate protection measures has given China leeway to not act more expeditiously and rapidly on climate protection. After the recent July 2008 G-8 summit, the G8 countries including the U.S. pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050 (but did not set any short-term concrete targets); developing nations like China and India indicated support for the same long-term goal, but did not commit to the goal, believing that the developed nations need to do more.[8]

Elizabeth Kolbert’s article on “What the next American president must do” draws from a “first 100 days plan” proposed by the non-partisan Presidential Climate Action Project (PCAP) that details, among other things, raising passenger vehicle standards in the U.S. to 50 miles-per-gallon by 2020.[9] Al Gore recently challenged Americans to produce all of the nation’s electricity from renewable sources and carbon-free sources in the next decade.[10]

Financial and Information Assistance
Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations also suggests that the U.S. government can and should increase funding support of environmental protection in China (currently, it’s less than $2 million per year and mostly focused on clean coal technology[11]). In June 2008, the U.S. and China signed a pact to cooperate on energy and the environment for the next 10 years.[12] William Chandler director of the Carnegie Energy and Climate Program has outlined a series of recommendations for how the U.S. and China can cooperate on reducing their carbon dioxide emissions.

American NGOs can help by sharing on-the-ground knowledge and expertise, whether it’s in helping to build energy efficiency, developing an environmental legal system or even in eco-friendly urban planning (China’s urban population is projected to increase by 300 million — practically the U.S.’s population — or the equivalent of building 300 new cities by 2020[13]).

Recognition of Interdependence and Mutual Responsibility
Recognition by American companies and consumers that they too bear some responsibility in contributing to China’s pollution and therefore have a role to play in helping to fix the problems can go a long way towards enhancing the U.S.-China relationship.

1 Joseph Kahn and Jim Yardley, “As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes,” New York Times, August 26, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/26/world/asia/26china.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1 (accessed November 10, 2007).

2 Geoffrey S. Becker, “Food and Agricultural Imports from China,” July 17, 2007, (accessed 7/14/08).

3 Leo Lewis, “China’s rubbish mountain is lure to investors,” Times Online, May 27, 2008, http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/markets/china/article4009302.ece (accessed 5/27/08).

4 Robert MacKey, “Answers from Yang Fuqiang,” Experts Roundtable, China: Choking on Growth, New York Times, August 28, 2007, http://china.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/08/28/answers-from-yang-fuqiang/ (accessed 7/14/08).

5 Rachel Oliver, “All About Electronics,” CNN, December 3, 2007, http://edition.cnn.com/2007/BUSINESS/12/03/eco.ewaste/ (accessed 7/14/08).

6 “Where does e-waste end up?,” Greenpeace International, http://www.greenpeace.org/international/campaigns/toxics/electronics/where-does-e-waste-end-up (accessed 7/14/08).

7 “Climate Change Mitigation Measures in the People’s Republic of China,” Pew Center on Global Climate Change, April 2007, http://www.pewclimate.org/policy_center/international_policy/china.cfm (accessed 7/14/08).

8 Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Richest Nations Pledge to Halve Greenhouse Gases,” New York Times, July 9, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/09/science/earth/09climate.html?scp=10&sq=china+india&st=nyt (accessed 7/14/08).

9 Elizabeth Kolbert, “What the next American president must do,” Yale Environment 360, June 3, 2008, http://e360.yale.edu/content/feature.msp?id=2013 (accessed 7/13/08).

10 David Stout, “Gore Calls for Carbon-Free Electric Power,” New York Times, July 18, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/18/washington/18gorecnd.html?hp (accessed 7/18/08).

11 Robert Collier, “Bali needs to know – can China go green?,” SFGate.com, December 9, 2007, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/12/09/IN2HTP07B.DTL&hw=bali+needs+to+know+can+china+go+green&sn=001&sc=1000 (accessed 12/10/07).

12 “U.S., China sign 10 year energy, environment framework,” China Daily, June 19, 2008, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/bizchina/2008-06/19/content_6775986.htm (accessed 7/14/08).

13 “Rural to Urban Migration and Urbanization in China,” Pacific Food System Outlook 2003-2004: Where Demographics will Take the Food System Report, Pacific Economic Cooperation Council, October 2003, p. 8, http://www.pecc.org/food/ (accessed 7/17/08).