Who owns China's air pollution?

Al Gore’s Nobel prize for his work related to climate change highlights the increasing profile that global pollution is receiving. The Kyoto Protocol, which requires signatories (note that the US has refused to participate, although China has) to control pollution, is set to expire in 2012 and negotiations are now under way to determine the framework that will govern pollution after Kyoto expires.

Developing countries, such as China and India, believe that the developed countries have a greater responsibility to take the lead in reducing pollution given: 1) developed countries are cumulatively responsible for the vast majority of pollution that has occurred to date and 2) per capita pollution rates are significantly higher in developed countries. Meanwhile, developed countries, especially the US, argue that since the growth rate of pollution is higher in developing countries and since developing countries' total pollution (especially in China) are reaching the levels of developed countries, large developing countries such as India and China should take a large role in cutting pollution levels. Who’s right?

A recent study by the Tyndall Centre on China’s air pollution titled “Who Own’s China’s Carbon Emissions?” sheds a lot of light on the topic. The study indicates that carbon emissions resulting from China’s net exports accounted for 23% of China’s total carbon pollution in 2004. This figure is comparable to Japan’s carbon pollution and it is more than double the UK’s emissions. These emissions are due to net purchases of goods from China by consumers in other countries. Since it is citizens of other countries that enjoy and demand these goods, the question “Who owns China’s air pollution?” becomes a legitimate one.

Another study by the New Economics Foundation entitled “Chinadependence” indicates that accounting for carbon pollution based not just on burning oil, coal and gas, but also including carbon ‘embedded’ in products consumed and bought, China’s per capita greenhouse gas pollution is only one tenth that of the US and one-quarter that of the UK. Are Chinese citizens' rights really worth only 1/10th that of an American and 1/4th that of a British citizen?

Looking at these statistics, it is hard to argue with India and China’s position that perhaps pollution reduction efforts should start at the developed countries. While the US government is happy to promote the concept of universal human rights, the concept apparently doesn't include the right to equally pollute! The equal right to pollute doesn't necessarily mean that Chinese and Indians should be allowed to pollute more, but it could mean that Americans should first be held responsible for polluting less.