Carnegie Mellon University

Growing China

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Exports Fuel Climate Problem

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As the world's greatest athletes compete in the 2008 Olympic Games, there is increasing concern about pollution in China. Carnegie Mellon's Christopher L. Weber argues that China's new title as the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter is at least partly due to consumption of Chinese goods in the West.

Coal-fired plants helped boost Chinese exports 21 percent last quarter to a whopping $666.6 billion in trade — and produced quite a bit of smoke and smog along the way.

"We found that in 2005, fully one-third of China's greenhouse gas emissions were due to production of exports," said Weber, a research professor in Carnegie Mellon's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. "This proportion has risen quickly, from 12 percent in 1987 and only 21 percent in 2002."

Weber and a team of international researchers from Norway and the United Kingdom found that soaring exports and energy use caused Chinese emissions to rise to 6 percent of global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. These results beg the question: who should be held responsible for China's immense growth in emissions?

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol on climate change did nothing to slow growth in China because, as a developing country, China is not required to make cuts in carbon emissions.

China is desperate for energy to fuel the economic expansion that is pulling its citizens out of poverty. Yet despite bold investments in renewable energy sources and energy efficiency, much recent energy growth is coming from coal, the only traditional energy source in abundance in China.

Weber and colleagues Glen P. Peters of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Dabo Guan of the University of Cambridge and Klaus Hubacek of the University of Leeds, are urging Chinese to clean up their production practices. They suggest working with business to audit energy consumption and develop a fund to help bankroll the installation of more efficient equipment in factories and power plants.

However, the fact that such a large proportion of Chinese emissions is in exports means that the West must be responsible for helping the Chinese increase energy efficiency.

"It is clear that urgent improvements are needed, especially in China's electricity sector," Weber said. "Installing more renewable power and overcoming the financial and technological hurdles involved with new technologies such as carbon sequestration should be the first priority of both China and its export partners."

Related Links: Dept of Civil & Environmental Engineering  |  College of Engineering