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Pro: Activists should organize boycotts of China’s polluting industries

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Alan Tonelson
January 12, 2008
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is addressing the question, “Is shunning products from China’s pollution-belching factories the most effective way Americans can reduce global warming?”

As made painfully clear by last month’s international conference, the world’s governments keep moving toward a global warming strategy that actually boosts greenhouse gas emissions and weakens industry and all its economic and strategic benefits in the United States and elsewhere in the developed world.


The key is super-green Europe’s growing support for a grand bargain that would strictly curb greenhouse gas emissions in rich countries such as the United States, while placing only minimal restraints on the full-throttle economies of massive new polluters such as China and India.


The Bush administration has resisted so far, but a new Democratic president could well seal this deal. Because most rich-country manufacturing is much cleaner than most Third World manufacturing, greenhouse gas emissions would keep surging—fueled partly by American, European and even Japanese companies seeking Third World pollution havens. As a result, economic hollowing out would accelerate in the high-income world with most Americans suffering disproportionately.


Preventing this looming train wreck requires revolutionizing the politics of global warming—fast. The United States should take the lead by slashing its imports from China and thus shrinking to globally sustainable proportions Beijing’s bloated, hyper-polluting industrial base.


An already huge, metastasizing carbon footprint alone would justify special attention for China. Its own figures show that the People’s Republic should pass the United States as the world’s largest source of greenhouse gases this year.


According to the authoritative Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, however, China’s carbon-dioxide emissions per unit of output are five times greater than America’s. Small wonder that the International Energy Agency recently reported that China’s emissions growth nowadays exceeds emissions growth from all other countries combined.


China’s booming use of fossil fuels is the major reason. The country, for example, just passed Japan to become the world’s second-largest oil consumer, after the United States, and it has generated more than one-third of the growth in world oil demand since 2002. China is a huge coal user, as well.


If this record simply reflected natural economic progress and still-lagging pollution control technology, the case for targeting China would be weaker. Yet China’s greenhouse gas machine is anything but a free-market creation.


As documented in a study last year by the Peterson Institute, it stems mainly from the communist regime’s use of trade protection, subsidies and other measures to boost advanced—and energy-intensive—industry whatever the consequences.


Along the way, Beijing has super-charged growth—and pollution—by heavily subsidizing energy use in manufacturing and by failing almost completely to enforce its own environmental regulations.


As a result of this government intervention, China has become a much larger manufacturer. It has become a producer mainly of relatively clean, labor-intensive light manufactured goods to one mainly of dirtier capital-intensive heavy manufactured goods.


And hundreds of billions of dollars worth of manufacturing has fled Europe and the United States—where clean manufacturing is advanced and environmental regulations widely enforced—to an environmentally irresponsible country where even the cleanest manufacturing is significantly dirtier.


Waiting for China’s environmental consciousness to catch up with its industrialization is the most widely discussed alternative to pressing for Chinese agreement to serious and uniform global emissions curbs. But because of its industrial shift, China’s emissions have increased, not decreased, as it has prospered.


Trade limits are the best lever available because so much of China’s growth and employment creation—and thus the job security of its leaders—depends on exporting. And the United States is by far the largest end-use market for Chinese exports.


Environmentalists have long warned that major action is needed right away to prevent further damage from global warming. If they mean it, they’ll start using their formidable talent to promote the downsizing of China’s trade-driven greenhouse gas machine.


Alan Tonelson is a research fellow at the U.S. Business & Industry Council in Washington and the author of “The Race to the Bottom.” Readers can write to him at USBIC, 910 Sixteenth St., Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20006; Web site: www.usbusiness.org.

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